A Colorado public health agency on Tuesday announced a third person has died from a COVID-19 outbreak tied to Nissan of Durango.
San Juan Basin Public Health said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases linked to the dealership had grown to 12.
In addition to the third death, the agency reported that a fourth person had died after contracting COVID-19. But that death "does not meet the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's (CDPHE) case definition to be added to the outbreak fatality list," the agency wrote in a news release Tuesday.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed five of the cases involved the delta variant of the coronavirus. The San Juan health department reported two of the 12 cases as of Monday had been identified as "breakthrough" infections of fully vaccinated people.
Nissan of Durango finance manager Warren Gutierrez said Wednesday that he and two other dealership employees contracted COVID-19. Gutierrez said his other two infected colleagues were fully vaccinated; he has not been inoculated.
No dealership employees died in the incident, and no customers were infected, he said.
The deaths and the remainder of the infections were associated with a group of independent contractors hired to drive vehicles for off-site sales, according to Gutierrez.
"They all get together in a van, and they drive back," he said.
The contractors weren't supplied by another company and were all individual Form 1099 workers, according to Gutierrez. "These are just people trying to make a little extra money," he said of the drivers.
The San Juan health department's news release said an agency inquiry found evidence "the lack of public health precautions within the workplace, especially regarding unvaccinated staff, contributed to the elevated number of cases." During the investigation, the agency and Nissan of Durango "implemented mitigation response plans for the business, including testing and contact tracing," according to the release. The agency did not respond to a request Wednesday for further comment.
But Gutierrez said the dealership had been taking precautions, and as far as he knew, the mitigation strategy referenced by the agency only involved contact tracing.
"We have followed the rules," he said. The company still requires all employees to wear masks, and a receptionist wipes down surfaces, he said. Disinfectant and hand sanitizer is accessible throughout the facility, and customers can request that an employee don gloves, he said. Sales reps still don't test-drive with customers, and he conducts signings out in the open rather than in his office, he said.
San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon said in the agency's release Tuesday that "the recent COVID-19 fatalities are a tragic loss for our community and a reminder that the pandemic is not over."
"We're very grateful for the cooperation of Nissan of Durango in response to this outbreak and to every business still working to keep our communities safe," Jollon said. "We are heartbroken to report the recent COVID-19-related deaths. We urge everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible and follow SJBPH's public health advisory by continuing to wear masks in public indoor settings like the grocery store and other businesses."
Gutierrez said he knew of three of the fatalities; he hadn't heard of the fourth case mentioned by the health department.
Two of the dead were a married couple in their 70s who had been transporting vehicles with the dealership for a decade, according to Gutierrez, who called it "super-sad." He said the third fatality involved a contract driver's mother.
Though the dealership required its own employees to mask up, it hadn't held the 1099 workers to the mask mandate, Gutierrez said.
"Moving forward, absolutely," Gutierrez said. But he also said the dealership is considering trucking vehicles for offsite sales instead of hiring drivers.
Nissan of Durango didn't conduct offsite sales in 2020, and Gutierrez said it had grown relaxed when it re-established them this year.
"We essentially just left (COVID-19 protection) up to them," he said of the contract employees.