Gov. Jay Inslee visited Okanogan County on Thursday, site of the latest hot spot in a coronavirus pandemic that has hit the counties of central Washington state.
Lightly-populated Okanogan County now has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the state with nearly 900 confirmed cases among its 42,000 residents, Inslee said during a conference call with reporters.
The town of Brewster, which has about 2,300 residents, is a particular hot spot with 514 cases, Inslee said.
A pattern has emerged in the central Washington farm belt with the Tri-Cities, Yakima and the Wenatchee area all being hard-hit by the virus. All share huge farm economies that require thousands of farm workers living and working in close proximity, Inslee said.
“The hot spots have followed the harvest pattern,” Inslee said, moving from the Oregon border to the Canadian border.
Central Washington grows many of the nation’s apple, cherries and other farm products, and needs tens of thousands of seasonal workers to produce the crops.
Inslee said the percentage of people wearing masks during work and shopping trips in Okanogan County appears to be good, but too many people are not wearing masks when they socialize.
“There are way too many parties and get-togethers,” Inslee said. “Young people without masks are congregating close together.”
To battle the outbreak, the Washington National Guard is sending a mobile testing unit to Okanogan County to increase the testing capability there, the Democratic governor said.
Inslee met Thursday with community leaders and also with leaders of the agriculture industry in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
“Labor-intensive agriculture presents an environment ripe for high transmission rates,” Inslee said, as farm laborers work closely in the fields and in processing plants, live in close quarters and travel together to jobs. Farm workers also typically have less access to health care, he said.
While Inslee earlier this year issued state rules to make farm work safer, he said he may issue additional rules as needed.
But he stressed that transmission of the virus was occurring in all sectors of the community, not just on farms.
“It’s just as important for the accountant in Wenatchee to wear a mask as someone involved in agriculture,” Inslee said.
Earlier this week, Inslee announced a $40 million state fund to help undocumented workers.
Washington has an estimated 240,000 residents without legal authorization, according to the Pew Research Center, and they pay an estimated $368 million in state and local taxes.
For those individuals and their mixed-status families the additional money means the opportunity to catch up on rent, car and utility bills, and other expenses.
Washington follows California and Oregon among states that developing relief funds for their undocumented residents.
The state next will look for a foundation or nonprofit to manage and distribute the money. The funds are expected to be distributed to immigrant families and individuals this fall with an estimated $3,000 per household and $1,000 per person.
Inslee said he is working to get the money out as quickly as possible.
The governor also noted there is little evidence of workers from Mexico bringing the virus up from that country to Okanogan County.
“The vast, vast, vast majority of infections are transmissions that occurred in Okanogan,” Inslee said.
Washington state has had more than 65,300 confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and at least 1,736 deaths.