By Jackie Hendry | South Dakota Public Broadcasting
The Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls will close for three days this weekend after becoming a cluster of coronavirus transmission. Health officials say about 80 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The union representing those workers says that number is closer to 120.
State officials say they’re monitoring the situation, while the city develops a more targeted communication plan.
State officials won’t say how many new COVID-19 cases are connected to the Smithfield outbreak. And state epidemiologist Josh Clayton says they do not identify specific hot spots.
“We don’t release information down to the city level. What we do release is the information at the county level,” he says.
Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon says they only alert the public when they can not identify everyone who might have contact with a positive case.
“Given the situation in Sioux Falls with the cluster of cases there tied to a commonality of an employer is what triggered us to identify that as a hot spot,” she explains.
As for the city, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken says he did not know about the extent of the Smithfield cases until about three days ago. He says the federal government is urging the plant to stay open and protect the food supply chain. TenHaken believes the company is taking the situation seriously.
“I believe, for good reason, the spread we’ve seen at Smithfield is not necessarily happening at the plant itself," he says. "It’s happening when people leave the plant.”
TenHaken says Smithfield workers speak more than 80 languages, but the city is focusing on connecting with the Hispanic and Nepali communities.
“Those are two of the largest immigrant populations we have in our city," TenHaken explains, "and they’re being hit the hardest with the outbreak at Smithfield. We’re already working on targeted communication strategies with those populations specifically.”
TenHaken says the city has to deal with outbreaks as they come.
“There will be other Smithfields that we’ll be talking about. There will be other hot spots.”
A statement from Smithfield says the three-day shutdown will let them sanitize the plant and install more physical barriers to allow distance between workers. There are about 3,700 workers in the plant.