An outbreak has disrupted operations during the busiest season of the year at two large Addison County orchards.
Champlain Orchards in Shoreham closed its shop and popular pick-your-own operation to the public over the weekend after a worker tested positive on Friday. Douglas Orchards, a nearby operation that Champlain Orchards acquired earlier this year, also closed for the weekend.
As of Monday, testing had revealed 26 cases among workers at the two orchards, according to health commissioner Mark Levine, who spoke at an afternoon briefing on the outbreak.
Those cases, plus seven unrelated ones reported Monday, added up to 33 new cases statewide — the highest single-day total since early June.
The orchards remained closed to the public, with limited wholesale operations continuing, said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Alyson Eastman.
“Our main focus right now is the health and safety of all involved: the workers, the employees and the community,” said Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts.
All 26 workers who tested positive had arrived in the U.S. in mid-September through the federal H-2A program, which permits agricultural employers to hire foreign workers on temporary work visas.
Employers must file paperwork declaring their need for foreign, seasonal labor with the federal government. In 2019, 57 Vermont agricultural businesses received permission to hire up to 482 seasonal workers for jobs ranging from harvesting produce to processing meat. Eastman said in a typical year, farms in the state bring in about 400 H-2A workers.
But that count has been slightly lower this year — around 325 — due to some farm consolidation and a large operation that scaled back.
This year, Eastman said, the state has recommended making sure seasonal employees travel from their home countries by air with as few layovers as possible, take a chartered vehicle to their work site and immediately begin a 14-day quarantine.
Eastman said Champlain Orchards followed all recommended procedures. The workers arrived in mid-September on the same flight. They took a chartered bus to Shoreham, where they began a two-week quarantine that ended on September 28.
State officials said Monday that one worker developed symptoms late in the quarantine period, and that they believe that worker was the source of the outbreak. Since that worker was diagnosed, the Department of Health has run a total of 101 tests on other farm employees and close contacts.
Officials said all of the positive cases so far have been confined to people in just one of three group-living quarters. Contact tracers have reached out to everyone with whom the workers came into contact.
And, they stressed, apples harvested or picked at the orchard at any point are safe to eat.