JBS plant employees get drive-through COVID-19 testing

Worthington Ice Arena transformed into testing site for weekend

Cars line up for testing.
Cars line up at a mass COVID-19 testing site at Worthington Ice Arena in Nobles County Fairgrounds in Worthington, Minn., on Thursday.
Courtesy of Sanford Health

The Nobles County Government Center in Worthington, Minn., is quiet these days. Most staff are working from home. It was just County Administrator Tom Johnson Thursday sitting alone in his office, working on three computer screens with a notebook filled with notes, mostly following up staff about providing more resources for the pandemic. 

Normally, Johnson can see people walking up and down the street. But it’s different now. 

“My window looks right up main street,” Johnson said. “There’s not a soul ... not a single person.”

But just north of downtown, the Nobles County Fairgrounds is bustling. It’s now home to a temporary drive-through testing site for COVID-19. 

Sanford Clinic Worthington and the Minnesota Department of Health set up the site in just a few days this week to test employees of the JBS pork processing plant, where several dozen workers and their families have already tested positive for the highly contagious disease. About 35 to 40 Sanford clinical staff launched the site Thursday, conducting tests on patients who drove through — yes, through — the Worthington Ice Arena.

When a person drives up to the fairgrounds, they’re directed to drive into the ice arena — and onto where the ice would be. Inside, three lanes are marked off by orange cones. Patients park their cars, show their ID badges and register. Then: A quick swab to the back of the nose to gather a sample that will be sent off for testing, and they drive straight through to the other side of the ice rink and out the door. They never leave their car.

A car pulls into an ice rink.
A car pulls into Worthington Ice Arena inside Nobles County Fairgrounds, which has become a mass COVID-19 testing site, in Worthington.
Courtesy of Sanford Health

Translators and community liaisons are helping medical staff register patients. The work is fluid, as staffers conduct tests and make sure traffic keeps moving.  

“Everybody here is in the proper PPE,” said Jennifer Weg, executive director of Sanford Clinic Worthington.

Despite not being able to see everyone’s faces because of masks, she could tell that patients were relieved to get tested. 

“People in the drive-thru, they, too, have their masks on. That’s kind of our social norm these days,” Weg said. “And so what I see in the eyes is thankfulness. Smile. Thumbs up.”

Cars are directed toward testing.
Cars are directed at a mass COVID-19 testing site inside of Worthington Ice Arena at Nobles County Fairgrounds in Worthington.
Courtesy of Sanford Health

In the face of an outbreak at the JBS plant — Worthington’s largest employer — health workers have descended on the city — for testing, mitigation and contact tracing.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said earlier this week the state is developing its pandemic playbook in Worthington, which it hopes to apply to other outbreaks as they arise across the state.

Testing is free for JBS plant employees if they present their work ID to Sanford staff at the testing site. Weg said it took several days to come up with a way to conduct mass testing for COVID-19. 

“We’ve been preparing for [the coronavirus] for six weeks, getting familiar with COVID-19, preparing patient education and doing our PPE training,” Weg said. “So, today is the day that we implement what we’ve been preparing for.”

The state Health Department has confirmed at least 40 cases of COVID-19 with ties to the JBS plant so far this week. More than 250 people in Nobles County have already tested positive for the disease. And health officials have said that, given the ramped-up testing, they expect those numbers to grow. 

The outbreak comes on the heels of a massive outbreak at a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, only an hour away across the South Dakota border. It’s considered to be one of the largest clusters of COVID-19 in the country. 

To accomodate for testing, Sanford decided to take the drive-through approach that the company had used on its Sioux Falls campus and apply the format in Worthington, but on a larger scale.So after Weg asked around, the Nobles County Fairgrounds was offered up as a testing site, and the Worthington Ice Arena was converted into the drive-though, so staff could be sheltered and patients could stay in their cars to keep themselves and Sanford employees safe. 

“I was impressed and very proud,” Weg said. “I’m pleased with the collaboration of so many people that made this come together in a short amount of time and really out of the goodness of their hearts to do theirs.”

Sanford Health team members at a testing site.
Sanford Health employees at a mass COVID-19 testing site inside of Worthington Ice Arena at Nobles County Fairgrounds.
Courtesy of Sanford Health

By the end of the weekend — the drive-through clinic is set to run through Sunday — Sanford officials say they anticipate taking more than 2,000 samples to be tested. Test results might take more than a few days to come back. 

“I’m very appreciative to the entire community that did this social distancing and followed the stay-at-home [order],” Weg said. “I think there’s that sense of rural pride that we’re doing what’s directed and it’s really making a difference for others.”

How has the JBS plant closing and COVID-19 impacted your daily life? Tell reporter Hannah Yang about your experiences by emailing hyang@mpr.org or following her on Twitter @HannahMYang. 

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