With 119 COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, Centralia’s United Natural Food Inc. (UNFI) distribution center announced its temporary closure Sunday.
The facility serves 825 grocery stores in the region, plus a large military operation. Working with the state Department of Health and local public health officials, UNFI expects to reopen Aug. 7.
“We certainly would prefer to have been here today to talk to you about we being one of the largest employers in the county, the economic impact that we deliver, hiring more associates to support growth,” spokesperson Jeff Swanson told county commissioners Monday. “But unfortunately … we’re dealing with an increase in positive COVID cases amongst associates and third party contractors who work in the facility.”
According to Lewis County Public Health Director JP Anderson, 56 of those 119 cases were identified through plant-wide testing that began Friday. Not all of those cases are from residents of Lewis County.
As of Monday afternoon, one individual connected to the outbreak — a Texas resident — has used Centralia’s Lakeview Inn facility to isolate and recover from the illness.
The county’s current case rate is 150.8 per 100,000 — slightly above the state’s 137.6 — and is on the rise in what health officials have described as a fifth wave.
The closure also marks the first time UNFI has closed any of its 58 distribution centers across the country due to the pandemic, according to Swanson.
The company is working with Lewis County Public Health and Social Services to address the recent infections, and said in a news release that it will require employees to show two negative COVID-19 tests before returning to work.
UNFI will “continue to promote the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine to its associate base,” and follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“UNFI’s actions in Centralia reflect the company’s ongoing commitment to maintaining robust safety and risk management practices to combat COVID-19,” the release stated. “The company’s efforts have been nationally recognized and are helping keep the food supply chain flowing throughout the pandemic.”
According to UNFI’s release, employees will be compensated through the closure. The company also said it will “continue to meet the essential needs of certain Centralia distribution center customers, including military commissaries” and will be communicating with local government officials and other partners.
At the Monday meeting, county commissioners thanked Swanson for UNFI’s work, as well as the company’s creation of jobs in the county.
UNFI’s senior vice president of risk and safety, Andre LaMere, also took the opportunity to urge county leaders to promote the COVID-19 vaccine, uptake of which has stalled in Lewis County.
“Because we all know that’s the solution. That’s the way out of the pandemic,” he said.