Todd County, one of rural Minnesota’s several coronavirus hot spots, now has more than 360 confirmed cases — most tied to a beef processing plant in Long Prairie.
Unlike other meatpacking factories that have faced criticism for moving too slowly to address COVID-19, Long Prairie Packing Co. has earned praise from its workers union and local officials for its actions to test and protect workers.
But the county’s sharp rise in the COVID-19 cases demonstrates how difficult it is to prevent the spread of a highly contagious disease amid the crowded quarters of a meatpacking plant — and in the wider community.
“It is a large amount in our area,” Long Prairie Mayor Jodi Dixon said. “I know that they did their hardest to stop it from happening. But as we all know, this just spreads like wildfire.”
The Long Prairie plant employs 500 to 600 workers, who slaughter, process and package beef. It’s owned by American Foods Group, which in turn is owned by Rosen’s Diversified based in Fairmont, in southern Minnesota.
As of Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health had confirmed 249 positive cases among Long Prairie Packing workers. Calls and emails to American Foods Group seeking comment were not returned.
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The Long Prairie plant is one of several meatpacking plants in Minnesota that have seen coronavirus outbreaks. Others include the JBS USA pork processing plant in Worthington, the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose.
While some plants have had to shut down temporarily since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Long Prairie Packing has continued to operate. City leaders say it’s important to the local economy and one of its largest employers in this community of about 3,300 residents.
The plant also has brought other agricultural industries and jobs to town, said city administrator Ted Gray, whose family raises beef cows.
“That’s a good thing to have a processing plant still operating during a time like this, knowing where food prices are going,” Gray said.
Slowing down, spacing out
The company has done “everything we have asked” to protect workers, said Jim Gleb, secretary-treasurer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 union, which represents plant workers.
That includes providing workers with barriers and personal protection equipment and sanitizing work areas and restrooms, Gleb said.
They’ve also provided paid training for workers on how to keep their work spaces clean and what they can do at home to help prevent the virus’ spread, he said. Many of the plant workers are Latino, so information about COVID-19 is also being provided in Spanish.
Most critically, Gleb said, the plant slowed down the speed of the production line, allowing workers to spread farther apart. It’s a move some other meatpacking plants have been reluctant to do, despite complaints from safety advocates in recent years that fast line speeds create safety hazards.
Slowing the line speed is “something we have asked for a long time, and this has made it happen,” Gleb said.
“It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if you don’t slow the chain speed, you’re not going to get the distance,” he said. “Everybody has to get a lot of work done in a short space. And when you’re elbow to elbow, it’s certainly not social distancing.”
In late May, Todd County Health and Human Services worked with Lakewood Health System to test all plant employees for COVID-19.
Workers who tested positive are required to isolate themselves for at least 10 days, according to Todd County. Members of their household were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms.
Those who tested negative must undergo a health screening and temperature check before entering the plant, the county said.
After an escalation of COVID-19 cases at a number of Midwest meatpacking plants in April, the outbreaks appear to be slowing, said Jeff Bender, director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Minnesota.
Bender attributes that slowdown to plant owners’ heightened awareness and efforts to try to control the spread by disinfecting and providing physical separation between employees.
“I think that they are trying to do things right,” he said. “Unfortunately, this virus is insidious, and when we bring people together, there's a real chance for the disease transmission.”
Employees at meat processing plants often work long shifts in close proximity with other workers, and share break rooms and restrooms, Bender said. They also often live in the same communities and sometimes share housing and transportation — “all factors that really allow for an ideal virus transmission scenario,” he said.
COVID-19 has sparked discussion about how to redesign plants or use more robotics or automation to make the workplace safer, Bender said.
Those industrywide changes could stick around even after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, and could drive up meat prices.
It’s possible that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will roll out additional regulations, Bender said.
“I think that the challenge will be some of the smaller plants that don't have that capital be able to adjust or to change,” he said.