In the past two weeks, Stearns County has emerged as a hot spot of COVID-19, with confirmed cases topping 1,100 on Thursday, as workers at a poultry processing plant in the county say their company hasn’t done enough to protect their health.
Increased testing and outreach efforts in recent weeks have focused on two poultry-processing plants in the county. But county and state officials say community transmission also has played a role in spreading the virus — perhaps even more than in Nobles County, where a meat-packing plant has also been a hot spot of COVID-19.
The spread of the virus has highlighted “how interconnected we actually are in our community,” said Renee Frauendienst, Stearns County public health director.
On Thursday, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Cold Spring, and to ensure workers’ safety.
CAIR said employees reported that the company is forcing them to keep working at the plant even if they’re sick; is not providing adequate personal protective equipment and sanitation; and is forcing employees to take group breaks in the same lunchroom, even as state health officials continue to recommend social distancing and self-quarantine.
Both Pilgrim’s Pride and Jennie-O, which owns a turkey processing facility in Melrose, say they’ve taken numerous steps to protect workers’ health and safety.
“We are following all CDC and OSHA-issued guidance around safety and social distancing, and we’re doing everything possible to provide a safe working environment for our team members,” said Nikki Richardson, a spokesperson for JBS USA, which owns Pilgrim’s Pride.
Stearns County’s positive case numbers climbed swiftly, from just 55 early last week to 1,161 on Thursday. The increase wasn’t a surprise, Frauendienst said, given a recent push by local health care provider CentraCare Health to boost testing.
“We knew that when we test, we’re going to find the disease,” she said.
The poultry plants haven’t disclosed the exact numbers of workers who have tested positive. But the Minnesota Department of Health said, as of Thursday, 83 employees of Pilgrim’s Pride and 19 of Jennie-O had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Frauendienst said it’s difficult to say whether the plants are the “epicenter” of the disease in Stearns County.
“It certainly has played a role in transmission, there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “But I don’t know that we can say it started there, but it certainly has impacted what we’re seeing in the community.”
Jennie-O, which is owned by Hormel Foods, shut down operations at the Melrose plant on April 28 to offer testing for workers and deep-clean the facility. The company said it hopes to reopen later this week.
Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary of JBS, which runs the pork processing plant in Worthington, said it has adopted new safety measures, such as testing the temperature of workers before they enter the plant; providing protective masks and barriers; increased sanitation; and promoting social distancing by staggering start times and breaks.
Workers at Pilgrim’s Pride walked off the job on April 27 to protest how the company was handling worker safety.
Nimo Ibrahim, who has worked at the plant for six years, said through an interpreter that she got sick around April 24, and tested positive for COVID-19 at a local hospital. She has recovered but has not returned to work.
Ibrahim said employees at the plant work shoulder to shoulder on the production line, and often congregate in close quarters in the cafeteria, restrooms and where they punch in to start their shifts. She said the company did provide protective masks and barriers, but not quickly enough.
Ibrahim also said sick workers returned to work after only a couple of days, because they feared losing their jobs.
In its statement, Pilgrim's Pride said the company started responding to COVID-19 in late February, and the measures it’s taken have evolved as CDC guidelines have changed. The company said some items, like thermometers and face masks, took time to get. It said company leaders are encouraging social distancing and requiring sick employees to stay home.
Tracing the spread
Stearns County public health workers have taken on the duty of contact tracing, which is typically handled by the state health department. The county also has enlisted the help of some St. Cloud city employees.
Contact tracing, which is seen as a key to understanding — and mitigating — the spread of the highly infectious disease, involves asking people who have tested positive for the coronavirus who they’ve been in contact with, then tracking down those people to give them information about the virus. Health workers then recommend they self-isolate or quarantine, and get tested if they have symptoms.
Many of the workers at its poultry plants are members of Stearns County’s Somali or Latino communities, so interpreters are available if needed.
Frauendienst said she hopes doing more of the contact tracing work at the local level will help speed up the process.
“I think our ability to connect with these individuals quicker and potentially get that data into the system … would be better, just because we’re closer to the situation here,” she said.