WILLCOX — Duane Velasquez, health and safety superintendent for NatureSweet Tomatoes, spoke to the Herald/Review recently about how despite his company facing its own personal epidemic when over 100 associates tested positive for COVID-19 at the farm in Willcox, a winning multipart plan was put in place to combat the pandemic and protect the workforce.

When Velasquez arrived

“So I came on board here at NatureSweet as the health and safety superintendent, it was mid-September of last year and quite honestly we didn’t really have a good grasp of what our COVID picture looked like here,” Valasquez said. “When I got here, a lot of the procedures we had in place, it was very minute. It was pretty much temperature checks and wearing masks. Any kind of masks.

“There (were) probably about 15-20 positives out of I think there (were) maybe 600 people at that time. That was because they had done what we call a blitz where they come out and test everybody. They only did that once.

“I come from the Air Force, 25 years of health and safety and the Air Force. I had just gotten done setting up the COVID response and how we manage COVID and I saw this and I go, you know what, there has to be a lot more positives in this.

“At one point we had over 100 positives/contacts and that almost wiped us out in regards to operations here. So we were at a point where we can’t lose that many people or were not going to be able to do what we need to do.”

Educating employees

“From what I read, a lot of agriculture businesses were wiped out when it came to COVID and they couldn’t grasp it,” Velasquez said. “They couldn’t stop it and like I said, we implemented quite a bit of things to help prevent it, but the No. 1 thing was education.

“The education was key. We had to educate everybody on how you get it. How it’s spread.

“We had people that were wearing the wrong kinds of mask. They were wearing bandanas.

“Bandanas provide no protection. We changed that and we made it mandatory to wear the three-ply mask or we also got N95 masks. The N95 mask that had filters on the side.

“The thing, though, is those aren’t good for the work environment, because let’s say I’m wearing that mask and I have COVID and I don’t know I have COVID. You’re breathing that COVID right out into the general public, so that valve, that filter is just a one-way valve.

To solve the filter problem Velasquez, “pulled all of those from the shelves, because NatureSweet provides the mask on a weekly basis to all their associates” and he replaced those N95s mask with ones that didn’t have any filters on them.

“So, you want to wear (a) mask with no filter. That’s how you prevent the spread of COVID, or any disease for that matter. Every Monday we hand out two masks to every associate that comes through the gate. We have a warehouse manager here, she has multiple vendors, (she’s) able to get (them) for us.

“Prior to COVID getting really crazy they were smart and they ordered quite a bit. A back stock. So we were able (to) add 20,000 three-ply masks and I had about 5,000 K95 masks. Were able to slowly keep our supplies up.

“Now it’s kind of second nature. They wash their hands. Now it’s ingrained in the work culture. Work culture when it comes to the health and safety of COVID especially is engrained in everybody. They saw what happened to their co-workers. People that got sick and nobody wants to go down that road.”

“The associates, they came a long way, because they went from being comfortable wearing what they wanted. I had to educate them as to why we can’t wear bandanas and why we can’t wear these masks that are really easy to breath with a filter on them. Once they understood that that culture shift happened. That was great for the company.”

Velasquez felt that more testing needed to be done in order to detect the cases sooner rather than later, so he partnered with Chiricahua Community Health Centers to get one of their mobile clinics set up, on site, at the farm.

The first check resulted in 40 positive results.

“Then out of that we had 30 contact,” Velazquez said. “We had so many people and it was month after month. We implemented a whole bunch of different procedures, such as we moved our tent checks up to the main gate. So one way in.”

Farm focus

Velasquez said the company focused on improving problem areas across the board, but the greatest emphasis was placed on implementing stronger sanitzing and masking protocol for associates traveling to the farm from Douglas.

“The thing is a lot of our employees come from Douglas, so they come in 15-passenger vans,” Velazquez said. “If you have (a) positive (case) in that van, you just wiped the whole van. That’s why we focused on providing masks to all of them in the van and making sure that they keep the windows open. We also had teams that would go and sanitize them.

“The company was very good when it comes to people who got COVID. I mean, they paid for that two weeks off. In fact we had one person out for almost a year, because of COVID that had a lot of issues. She just came back last month.

“She received a paycheck every two weeks. Medical benefits. Everything. The company made that a point when the pandemic came out that they’re going to take care of their associates and they did.

“They took care of everybody. That’s another positive thing about what NatureSweet did for the employees as well and then continue to do. If you’re positive they pay for your time off. You don’t lose any of your personal time.”

Vaccination time

“The last four weeks we’ve had zero positive,” Velasquez said. “We also just last month had the whole plant vaccinated. I got with (the) Chiricahua Clinic and we all got the Johnson & Johnson (COVID-19 vaccine),” Velasquez said.

At the time, NatureSweet Tomatoes became the first agricultural company in Arizona to get vaccinated.

“They called us as soon as they got that first batch,” Velasquez said. “We set up a few days later. A mass vaccination and we got I’d say 95 of the people got vaccinated. The other 5 percent, they were either on vacation or they weren’t working that day. So we’re following up with them to get them vaccinated as well.”

The reaction

“We did it on a Friday and let me tell you, I had the chills,” Velasquez said. “It was a little crazy. I’d say maybe five people didn’t come to work on Monday, because they still had effects. It ended up working out.

“Now we’re all vaccinated here. We’re all sitting good. Knock on wood. Everyone seems to be healthy.

“I think we’re at a good place now. Drastically we went from that 100 down to probably 40 and then the next month 20 and then to nothing. We have zero positive cases right now.”