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Meatpacking plants are Nebraska's newest battleground in war against coronavirus

Meatpacking plants are Nebraska's newest battleground in war against coronavirus

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Coronavirus cases are emerging at several more meatpacking plants across Nebraska as workers in rural communities like Madison, Lexington and Dakota County become infected.

“We’re worried this is getting worse fast,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, immigrants and communities program director at advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed. “We need to be getting ahead of this.”

Coronavirus cases are spiking in Hall, Adams, Dawson and Dakota Counties, areas with large meat processing employers like Tyson Foods and JBS USA.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that more than 2,000 coronavirus test results came back over the weekend. Almost half of those who tested positive lived in either Hall or Dawson County. Officials have warned that cases will naturally rise as more people are tested.

Roughly 237 confirmed cases in the Grand Island area are tied to the JBS plant, the local health director said. That's a worrisome trend — just over two weeks ago, on April 3, only 10 JBS workers had tested positive. 

Outbreaks, if they are not contained, threaten workers, the communities where they live and the food supply chain, including farmers and grocery stores. Plants that employ thousands of workers and slaughter thousands of cattle, hogs and chickens have temporarily closed in states such as Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota after workers became sick and several died.

In a Facebook Live chat Sunday night, Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said Nebraska’s current hot spots are typically associated with large manufacturing facilities, primarily meat processing operations.

He believes that coronavirus clusters at nursing homes and long-term care facilities are slowly being extinguished. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants are the emerging problem.

“If there’s one thing that might keep me up at night, it’s the meat processing plants and manufacturing plants,” he said.

Rise in coronavirus cases in three Nebraska meatpacking communities

Cases have risen sharply in three Nebraska counties with meatpacking plants in the last 10 days.

County April 10 April 20
Dawson 3 172
Dakota 0 69
Hall 84 531

Hall County, home to Grand Island, has the most coronavirus cases in Nebraska, with 531 as of Monday. Dawson County counted 172, behind only Hall and the much more populous Douglas County, dominated by Omaha.

At least eight workers at the Tyson pork plant in Madison have tested positive, the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department reported on Monday.

An undisclosed number have tested positive in Omaha-area facilities and the Tyson beef plant in Lexington, in Dawson County. A Tyson Fresh Meats executive confirmed cases at a Dakota City plant in an interview with a local TV station.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department said a person who lives there but works at the Smithfield pork plant in Crete has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

That’s in addition to previously reported cases at the JBS beef plant and McCain frozen appetizer plant in Grand Island, the Costco chicken plant in Fremont — which reported a total of six cases on Monday — and the Western Reserve processing center in Hastings. Twenty-six Western Reserve workers had tested positive as of Sunday, plus four food inspectors who have since recovered.

The Nebraska National Guard has been sent to Grand Island, Hastings, Madison and Lexington to swab people for testing.

“If food processing facilities continue to shut down, the meat supply in this country will rapidly dwindle,” said Jessica Kolterman, spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, which runs the Fremont chicken plant. “We are working hard to implement interventions to prevent that from happening.”

Working from home is not an option at these facilities, and the demands of the fast-moving production line make social distancing difficult, too. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers in shifts slaughter animals and slice and package meat standing nearly elbow-to-elbow.

In Nebraska, many of these workers are Latino, Sudanese, Somali or Burmese, and officials say they must do a better job of translating health news and alerts into languages like Spanish and Arabic.

In places like Lexington, population 10,000, it is difficult to decipher whether the virus is spreading inside the plant, where 2,800 people work, or if workers testing positive have contracted the virus out in the community, said Jeremy Eschliman, director of the Two Rivers Public Health Department.

Tyson, Smithfield Foods, JBS and other plants say the companies have instituted extensive safety precautions, installing clear plastic dividers in cafeteria and common areas, giving workers masks and taking temperatures before shifts.

Ricketts said Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at Nebraska Medicine, is touring plants and giving companies pointers on infection control.

Some employers are paying higher hourly rates or bonuses for good attendance. Lincoln Premium Poultry is offering paid leave for workers over 65 who fear being exposed to the virus at work. At some plants, absence rates have climbed as worried workers call in sick.

Workers’ advocates say that these steps aren’t enough and that the growing number of cases proves it.

Gladys Godinez lives in Lexington and is a community organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs. Tyson workers have complained to her about inconsistent temperature checks and dividers that weren’t installed on the production line until Monday. The workers who have COVID-19 are finding it difficult to arrange testing for their family members who have been exposed, she said.

Some want to see the plant shut down for two or three weeks to get a handle on the outbreak, while others fear being out of work if production stops.

“We know they’re working paycheck to paycheck and trying to earn their living, eat, pay rent,” Godinez said. “(Tyson has) the capacity, they can pay them sick time, they can choose to protect their workers, but they’re choosing not to at this moment.”

Tromanhauser, of Nebraska Appleseed, said spacing out workers in the cafeteria doesn’t matter much if they’re not standing 6 or more feet apart on the production line.

“No one is saying don’t produce food, but we have to find a way to produce food that distances people and keeps them safe, otherwise food production is going to stop,” she said.

The Elkhorn Logan Valley Health Department received more testing kits through the state and decided that Tyson workers and their families in Madison should be tested. Local and corporate Tyson officials were initially supportive, the Health Department said in a Monday press release.

Late last week, Tyson apparently changed its mind, with an executive writing to the Health Department to say the plant would not provide a list of workers’ names for testing, the release said.

The department has requested that Tyson take a number of preventive steps, including letting high-risk workers who are older or have underlying health conditions stay home without losing their jobs, providing masks to be worn at all times, and screening workers for symptoms before they enter the plant and during the middle of their shift.

A Tyson spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an update Monday night, the Health Department said that it met with local Tyson managers Monday and that “we are confident in the progress that was achieved.”

Iowa officials are asking businesses to tell them when 10% of their workers are absent or have confirmed coronavirus cases. This includes meatpacking plants, food and beverage plants and other warehouses, said Sarah Reisetter, the deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“What we’re seeing is confirming what we know about the virus, it spreads easily in places where people are close together,” she said.

Anthone said Nebraska has been tracking cases at nursing facilities, but not meatpacking plants.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said that Iowa farmers provide a third of the nation’s pork supply and that if plants can’t function, farmers may be forced to euthanize their hogs, which would affect prices and food supply.

“These processing plants are essential, and these workers are an essential workforce,” Reynolds said, adding that plants operating with fewer workers would be better than shutting down the operation entirely. “We must do our part to keep them open in a safe and responsible way.”

World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.