Updated: 4:45 p.m. | Posted: 11:26 a.m.
The JBS pork company announced Monday that it would indefinitely close its processing plant in southwest Minnesota, just days after state officials announced that more than two dozen employees of the plant have tested positive for COVID-19.
More than 2,000 people work at the plant, Worthington’s largest employer.
In a news release, the company said it would wind down production over the next two days. It has agreed to compensate workers for 32 hours per week and will still pay their health benefits.
“We don’t make this decision lightly,” company president Bob Krebs said in a statement.
Krebs said that the company has been working with state and local officials to respond to the outbreak.
In a daily news conference update Monday, Gov. Tim Walz thanked those officials and the company for their collaboration. He said they are working together, while the plant is closed, “to reassess what we can do to make that plant safe, [and] what we can do to keep those employees safe."
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Walz said finding a solution to reopening the plant safely is crucial to the local community’s health and economy — and to the country’s food supply.
The Worthington plant processes 20,000 hogs per day. Leading up to Monday’s announcement, the company had taken some safety measures — installing plastic or plexiglass barriers on production lines and in the lunch room, scanning the temperature of workers entering the plant to see if anyone has a fever, and increasing cleaning, among other measures.
Union officials had been calling on the company to slow down production, so workers who normally work shoulder-to-shoulder on the line could work farther apart.
Walz said representatives from the state departments of labor and industry, health and agriculture have been deployed to Worthington to help company and regional leaders respond to the outbreak.
"The lessons learned in the JBS plant in Worthington are going to be applied to our other ... packing facilities across the state," Walz said.
The state has issued new guidance to the meatpacking industry for modifying its operations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The guidelines include best practices for screening visitors and employees; distancing on production lines and in shift and break schedules; issuing personal protective equipment and facial coverings; and working remotely.
A warning sign in Sioux Falls
State and local officials were getting increasingly concerned about southwestern Minnesota’s food industry after the major outbreak of COVID-19 at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., not far from the Minnesota border.
The outbreak has become among the largest in the country — and state health officials have said they know there are connections between the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls and the JBS plant in Worthington.
"We know that workers that work at JBS also have family members or go back and forth between these plants,” said Minnesota’s infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann. “So, there's a potential that what was in Smithfield could have gotten to JBS.”
But Ehresmann said community transmission had already been happening around the state — and researchers can’t say definitively if the virus spread between the two locations.
Walz said last week that the situation in Worthington is different than what’s unfolding across the border in Sioux Falls, because JBS executives and union representatives have been working closely with state and local officials to respond.
The closures are having ripple effects up and down the food supply chain. Together, the JBS and Smithfield Foods closures account for an almost 10 percent loss of the country's pork supply.
“We have a responsibility here in Minnesota that we feed a large portion of the world,” Walz said Monday. “We are very much disproportionately the bread basket of the world, and when these things start to shut down and when you combine Smithfield and JBS, it's a big portion of where our producers are sending their animals to market.”
According to state agriculture secretary Thom Peterson, the plant closures have meant that about 50 percent of the market for pigs raised in Minnesota has been effectively shuttered.
It’s already been a tough time for agriculture across the state, he said: “Before we even had COVID-19, we faced five years of bad prices.”
Peterson said his department is taking several steps to ease the blow for Minnesota farmers: It’s allowing operations to hold more pigs, as they figure out new places to sell them — and it’s working to connect farmers with new markets.
He said his staff has also been working with the state’s other large processors to implement best practices to continue operating and helping smaller production plants ramp up their capacity to meet the new processing needs.
"Our goal,” he said, “is to keep those plants running. It's incredibly important."
A challenge in tracing
State health department investigators are in Worthington and Nobles County now interviewing people who’ve been infected, hoping to identify anyone else who might have been exposed.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state is “developing a playbook” in Worthington for how it will respond to hot spots as they erupt across the state.
She said the state is offering COVID-19 testing for all JBS workers, and thanked the company for encouraging its employees to get tested. But she said not everyone is taking the state up on its testing offer.
“Getting people to come can be a challenge,” she said, “so we're looking for the support from community leaders in Worthington to get people to testing, too."
Malcolm said there’s concern that some undocumented workers might be reluctant to come forward for testing. But she said that workers’ status should not be a barrier to testing — and added that it would not be a barrier to receiving support from the state health department.
“It’s critical to the public health that we understand who’s been exposed,” she said.
As part of the state’s work in determining the extent of the coronavirus’ spread, Malcolm said, health department teams continue to interview patients who have tested positive for the virus, as part of a process called contact tracing.
Typically, she said, that tracing is complete within 24 hours of a positive test. But in the Worthington outbreak, she said that’s taking much longer. Of the 77 positive cases from Saturday testing, she said, health workers have only been able to complete 41 interviews.
That’s in part, she said, because of language barriers, crowded housing, limited access to phones and mobility among many affected workers.
But completing that contact tracing will be crucial to understanding the virus’ spread in the Worthington community, she said: Of those 41 interviews health workers have completed, 33 people were JBS employees, and six were family members of employees.
MPR News reporter Hannah Yang and editor Andrew Krueger contributed to this report.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.
Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.
The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.