More than 200 COVID-19 cases at Dole plant; trilingual contact tracing effort underway

Photo of drive-through COVID-19 screening by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Mass testing at a Clark County food plant Saturday revealed more than 200 COVID-19 infections among employees.

Complicating the response, about half the Dole Food Company employees only speak Spanish, and another 25% only speak Haitian-Creole, requiring a mix of translators and bilingual contact tracers, according to Emma Smales, a spokeswoman for the Clark County Combined Health District.

“This was not a small event,” she said of the mass testing. “It took weeks of planning.”

Before Saturday, only 38 cases traced back to the Springfield plant. Since results came back, the health department has been executing a flurry of contact tracing and working to produce translated health educational materials. 

Officials detected the first case at the plant, which makes salad kits, on April 22. Smales said 829 people were tested Saturday, though some of those people had already tested positive and were being retested. About 229 positive results came back, though the department is still weeding out new positive cases from the duplicates. A final case count is not yet available.

“This is more cases than we thought we would get,” Smales said. “We kind of assumed a 10% positive rate. Or maybe hoping is a better word.”

Dole spokesman William Goldfield deferred to the health district for case details, but said in an emailed statement that the company required testing of all facility personnel.

“All Dole employees who tested positive have been asked to self-quarantine,” he said. “While away from the plant they will continue to receive pay and will return to work once authorized by CCCHD.”

In a May statement, Dole claimed that contact tracing of its employees “did not appear to reveal any clustering nor evidence of transmission of the virus within our plant,” and it believed the plant was not the “source of transmission.”

When asked if Dole stands by that claim, Goldfield said the company “has not seen evidence of spread at the facility.

Smales said an investigation is ongoing, but officials have interviewed less than 10% of the people with the disease and it’s too early to determine what happened.

At an unrelated media briefing, Gov. Mike DeWine briefly addressed the Clark County outbreak. He said the Ohio Department of Health is assisting in translation and contact tracing efforts and urged local health departments to work with the state on outbreak.

As we work through the coronavirus, we’re going to continue to see hotspots flare up in different communities, in different counties,” he said.

An Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman could not be reached as well.

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration found that Dole management knew it had a listeria problem at the plant for more than a year before temporarily closing it down, according to The New York Times.

The company was also cited for exposing its workers to an amputation hazard in 2017, according to a report from The Springfield News-Sun.