WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Any doubt that COVID-19 was circulating in Worthington and its surrounding area have been erased.
As of Saturday, April 18, there have been at least 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 tied to the JBS pork plant in Worthington, according to health officials and the UFCW Local 663, the union representing workers at the meatpacking plant in southwestern Minnesota.
365体育投注Nobles County saw a spike of 23 additional diagnoses Sunday, bringing the total cases there to 60.
Gov. Tim Walz addressed the outbreak during his daily news conference Friday, saying he’s spoken to the chief executive officer of JBS, its plant manager, representatives from UFCW Local 663 and Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle.
365体育投注“We have positive cases showing up in the JBS facility,” Walz said. “I think the good news on this is plant management has been monitoring this and have been in direct communication with us.”
Nonetheless, the outbreak at JBS is especially concerning because of what has happened about an hour west at the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., the epicenter of one of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. That plant has more than 700 confirmed coronavirus cases and one death through Saturday.
There are about 2,200 workers at the JBS pork plant, many of whom work in close proximity with each other on a daily basis. Because of that, UFCW Local 663 has asked for slower production speeds to allow for more social distancing on the line.
365体育投注Additionally, UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht said failure to do so will put the community and the nation’s food supply at “devastating risk” in the grand scheme of things.
“At a time when schools and restaurants are being closed for the sake of public health, it defies logic to keep the people who make the food we all eat standing shoulder to shoulder while they work,” Utecht said in a statement. “This is an incredibly serious situation. If we don’t act now to slow line speeds at food processing plants in Minnesota it will be too late for too many people.”
The number of positive cases initially jumped Thursday night, when Nobles County’s Public Information Officer Tom Johnson issued a press release stating they were notified of 16 new cases in the county by the Minnesota Department of Health.
365体育投注The news came hours after about a dozen workers at JBS walked off the job over safety concerns at the facility.
Workers walk out
365体育投注Hirpho Koji, a forklift operator at the Worthington pork-processing plant, explained that during his shift Thursday, management called a meeting and announced that a JBS employee had tested positive for COVID-19.
Although JBS is taking a number of safety precautions, Koji and a few others were frightened by the news that the virus could be circulating among them undetected.
365体育投注“They’re trying their best to help, like cleaning and hand sanitizing, but it’s not enough,” he said, adding that a group asked management to shut down production for a while, but was told that would not happen.
365体育投注“Their answer was, ‘Get back to work or leave the property,’” he said. So Koji and about 10 others walked off the job.
“I left my job because it’s not safe; it’s too crowded,” he said. “I was thinking about my kids.”
365体育投注Officials from the Department of Labor and Industry (OSHA) and MDH will be at the JBS site today to observe health-screening processes and continued implementation of social distancing practices there.
Cameron Bruett, head of Corporate Affairs for JBS USA, confirmed Friday that the company has had a few employees at its plants nationwide test positive for COVID-19, but would not name specific locations, citing respect for the families.
365体育投注He described the conflict Thursday as 30 employees leaving work but then returning later in the day, although Koji said he did not go back to his job.
“No one is forced to come to work, and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” Bruett said. “If someone is sick or lives with someone who is sick, we send them home.”
365体育投注Kuhle said Friday that a rapid-response team was arriving in Worthington on Friday afternoon as a result of the surge in COVID-19 cases.
“There’s going to be a state epidemiologist, as well as four or five others,” he said. “They’re going to be working both sides — working on the medical side of it, and also at the plant, helping them identify even better practices than what they’re already doing.”
Reporting by Forum News Service reporters Ryan McGaughey, Julie Buntjer, Leah Ward and John Molseed in Worthington and Rochester. Dane Mizutani of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this report. As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
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