UNICOI COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A county that had only three positive cases of COVID-19 for over two months is now dealing with nearly four dozen. The surge comes after two local farms confirmed positive cases among workers.
At the end of May, Unicoi County had three total confirmed cases of the virus. But last Monday, Scott’s Strawberry and Tomato Farms announced 38 workers had tested positive. A few days later, Jones & Church Farms said 10 of its employees tested positive.
Those 10 employees worked in the same field crew at Jones & Church Farms, according to field manager and part-owner Gregory Church. He said the workers contracted COVID-19 through community spread.
“This wasn’t a problem that was brought somewhere else to the community. It’s the community that spread it to the workers,” said Church.
Church said the employees who tested positive had been working for the farm since April, with four living in the area year-round.
“So possibly one worker brought it to the rest of them, where they work closely together,” he said.
When one crew member started showing symptoms, the farm decided to test all 110 employees. This was before the first positive test result came back, according to Jones & Church Food Safety Director Renea Rogers. She said of the ten positives, 2 are Unicoi County residents and 8 live in Washington County.
“When we first started to get workers in on April the 11th, we were already doing temperature screenings and had already increased our sanitation practices significantly,” said Rogers.
The farm will continue to screen workers for symptoms and take temperatures going forward. Church and Rogers said farm facilities were also deep-cleaned.
Jones & Church primarily harvests tomatoes, which aren’t in season until mid-July. The farm is currently in the midst of planting.
Even if their tomatoes were being sold in stores, Dr. David Kirschke with the the Northeast Regional Health Office said the FDA has found no evidence of coronavirus transmission by food.
“And the CDC says there was very low risk of transmission from food or food packaging,” said Kirschke.
Unicoi County currently has 45 active COVID-19 cases, many of which came after Scott’s Strawberries had 38 employees test positive last week. Kirschke said contacts of the positive cases have all been notified and quarantined.
“Really unless someone’s been contacted during our contact investigation as being a close contact with the case, there’s very low risk for the public,” Kirschke said of the farm-related cases.
But Dr. Kirschke said it’s still too soon for the public to let their guard down with social-distancing and face-covering while in close proximity to others.
“We definitely expect to see continuing coronavirus cases throughout the summer, even potentially a surge in cases. We have more active cases in Tennessee right now than we’ve ever had,” he said.
Church said these cases show coronavirus is still a problem in the community.
“Whatever the source was for the worker who was infected can very well infect other people here too,” he said.
Free COVID-19 testing is still being offered by the Unicoi County Health Department Monday through Friday for those who call ahead and schedule an appointment.
The Town of Unicoi will also be hosting a free drive-through testing event on Wednesday, June 10th for community members who may be concerned about having COVID-19. It will be held at the Tourist Information Center from 3 – 6 p.m.