Coronavirus outbreak at Greeley plant forces two-week closure, burdens local health facilities

Close quarters and a company culture of working while sick created a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus at the Greeley JBS meat packing plant that has infected at least 277 people and spread beyond the plant into Weld and two other counties, burdening local healthcare facilities and forcing the plant to temporarily shut down.

The JBS plant will voluntarily close until April 24 in order to test employees for COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It will wind down operations with a reduced staff for the next two days in order to process meat already in the facility, according to a company statement released on Monday.

State and local health officials in a Friday letter warned JBS CEO Andre Nogueira of the virus’ rapid spread among employees, particularly those who work the first shift at the plant, and said continued exponential spread would “quickly overwhelm” medical resources in Greeley and the surrounding communities. Weld County officials released the April 10 letter on Monday, along with a previous letter from the Weld County Department of Health and Environment to JBS’s director of human resources that was sent April 4.

Weld County health officials have identified at least 277 JBS employees or dependants who sought medical care for respiratory illness suspected or confirmed to be COVID-19 between March 1 and April 2, according to the letter. Those individuals generated about 362 visits to emergency departments or health clinics in Weld County, according to the April 4 letter.

Since March 25, 43 JBS employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus cases, and 14 of those patients have been hospitalized. Eight patients were intubated, and at least two have died.

Of the 43 confirmed cases, 32 employees went to work while sick, health officials said in the letters, with patients telling medical staff of a company culture in which even supervisors and managers came to work while ill.

Nogueira and Tim Schellpeper, president of JBS’s Fed Beef division told the Denver Post in an interview last week that the company encouraged sick employees to stay home.

“It’s very clear that you understand at no time have we ever asked a worker to come to work ill,” Schellpeper said April 7. “We want them to stay home.”

Nogueira said the company’s confirmed cases were just a small portion of the overall confirmed cases in Weld County. There were 784 confirmed coronavirus cases in Weld County Monday, and 51 people had died from the disease, according to the county health department.

Limited testing means that the number of infections is likely much higher than the count confirmed by testing.

The outbreak at the meat packing plant has drawn attention from Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Jared Polis. Pence said Friday that the federal government would contribute testing supplies to the plant.

State officials want to get the plant up and running again as soon as it is safe, Polis said Monday.

“Our priority is going to be to make sure we can restore this critical part of our national food security, which is also an important part of the livelihood of our ranchers and as well as our consumers, as quickly as possible, as quickly as we can assure the employees it is a safe environment to return to, and that includes testing the employees,” he said during a Monday news conference.

Plant workers will be paid during the two-week shutdown, JBS said in its statement Monday, which also noted the company is donating about a quarter million dollars to local COVID-19 relief efforts.

County and state health officials ordered JBS to take a variety of measures to better protect workers from infection before the facility can reopen, including testing and screening employees, providing adequate personal protective equipment, implementing social distancing measures and notifying non-employees who have been at the plant — including contractors, inspectors and food service staff — about the outbreak so they too can be tested.

JBS also must develop a housing plan to ensure healthy employees are housed away from infected individuals, according to the April 10 letter. The plant also should plan to reopen with a reduced level of staff, the letter said.

JBS USA operates 65 facilities in the United States. The company shut down one processing plant in Souderton, Penn., for two weeks after several members of the management team got sick with flu-like symptoms that could have been COVID-19.

On Sunday, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods announced it will close a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota until further notice after hundreds of employees tested positive for the coronavirus — a step the head of the company warned could hurt the nation’s meat supply, the Associated Press reported.

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