Whatcom View: Hand-washing ambassadors will keep fair focus on safety

Cousins Roman Meenk, 10, left, of Lynden and Elijah LaForge, 17, of Yelm enjoy the YoYo ride at the 2014 Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.
Cousins Roman Meenk, 10, left, of Lynden and Elijah LaForge, 17, of Yelm enjoy the YoYo ride at the 2014 Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

In a community like ours, so deeply rooted in its agricultural heritage, few events are as iconic as the Northwest Washington Fair.

In its 105-year history, the fair has grown to an event that welcomes 200,000 guests every year, and has broadened from its foundation in agriculture to become a festivity that features music, arts and even exotic animals.

Some of my fondest memories growing up in our community revolved around time spent at our Northwest Washington Fair as a teenager and competing with draft horses, and as the president of the board, I want to see the fair continue on for many years.

That is why I joined many in our community who were deeply saddened by the outbreak of E. coli earlier this year on the fairgrounds. The outbreak, which occurred during an event hosted by another beloved community organization, was made worse by the fact that it affected our children.

Now, with the Northwest Washington Fair just a few weeks away from kicking off its 105th year, I am here to say that since the outbreak, our staff, volunteers and community groups have worked very hard to make our fair the safest it can be.

The health department concluded that this sort of outbreak could have happened at any similar event, anywhere across the state, even despite our many precautions. The reality is that whenever you have livestock present, you also have a risk of E.coli. transmission to humans.

While some might take that declaration as an excuse, we look at it differently. We see it as a challenge. We are working hard so this never happens at our fair again. We’ve committed – and taken steps – to make the 2015 Northwest Washington Fair, scheduled Aug. 17-22, the safest of any fair of its type.

We have worked with health officials to make changes to our existing layout of the fair to reduce the chances of cross-contamination from the animal areas. We’ve also increased the pre-event cleaning of areas with the highest use by animals.

All of these steps, though, take a back seat to what experts say is the most potent way to stop the transmission of E.coli: proper, thorough and frequent handwashing. We are going to make absolutely sure that everyone that visits the fair knows this important fact and has easy access to hand-washing facilities.

Last year, we had 12 handwashing sinks at the fair. This year, we are doubling the number. But more importantly, we are making hand-washing the core message to all of our visitors, especially children.

This year when you visit the fair, you will see our newest addition to the fair staff, our hand-washing ambassadors, all wearing neon blue t-shirts. These trained young men and women have one critical task: to show our guests, especially children, proper hand-washing techniques.

We are also going to make it a fun experience for these young guests. After listening to brief presentations from our hand-washing ambassadors at select sinks and demonstrating hand-washing skills, children can receive a variety of fun prizes. The children who make the rounds and visit all of our selected hand-washing stations can also win a special grand prize and recognition from our hand-washing ambassadors. The interactions with our hand-washing ambassadors and prize game will instill life-long lessons about hand hygiene, leading to a healthier community into the future.

The events of this spring were tragic for the children and families involved. While all those who were sickened have recovered from the immediate impact, the experience of the outbreak is something that will remain with them for a long time, as it will for all of us at the fair.

Ultimately, I am proud of how the fair and our partners responded. We were open and transparent with what happened, and we provided frequent community updates. We also worked closely with the Whatcom County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control throughout the event, and we are continuing to work in collaboration with them moving forward.

We understand that this caused justified concern from parents and other members of the community about whether the fair is a safe place this year, but I am very confident that with all the hard work our staff and volunteers have done, The Northwest Washington Fair is safe, and the best place to celebrate our heritage.

I look forward to seeing you and your families Aug. 17-22 at the Fair!


Steve VanderYacht is president of the board of the Northwest Washington Fair.