State health officials confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating an outbreak of the new coronavirus at the JBS Beef packing plant in the Texas Panhandle, part of ongoing efforts to monitor major meat processing plants as the pandemic continues to threaten food supply chains.
Earlier this month, the Department of State Health Services conducted an epidemiological investigation in Shelby County that identified a cluster of 14 coronavirus cases and two related deaths that were “in some manner” tied to employees of a Tyson Foods facility.
Now, a department spokeswoman said, an “environmental assessment team” is being sent to Moore County to advise on ways the massive meatpacking plant, which processes a significant portion of the nation’s beef, can curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of the coronavirus.
The investigation follows the shuttering of the company’s meat packing plants in other states because of local outbreaks. Moore County, near the Oklahoma border, has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the state. (Some local leaders attribute it to rapid testing.)
After a call with Tyson Foods officials, the health department asked the company to enact additional protections for employees at its facility near the Louisiana border, including monitoring all individuals entering the facility for both fever and other COVID-19 related symptoms, and to increase its sanitizing as part of the transportation the company provides for workers.
And in East Texas:
The state health department is investigating cases at a Tyson poultry processing plant in Shelby County that may comprise a significant number of the county’s 69 confirmed cases. While meatpackers across the nation have been slammed with high numbers of coronavirus cases, leading to the deaths of workers and facility closures, this represents one of the first known outbreaks of the virus at a plant in Texas.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has offered few details of its investigation into the outbreak at the Tyson facility on the Texas-Louisiana border. But Dr. Florencio Singson, who operates a clinic in Center, the county seat, told the Observer that health officials said the outbreak represents a “majority” of the county’s cases. Meanwhile, Tyson posted on its Facebook page that it is closing the facility this week. The post made no mention of the apparent outbreak, saying only that the company was installing new equipment at the plant.
Shelby County, population 25,400, has one of the highest per capita rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas. It’s nearly four times that of the state overall, and the highest countywide rate outside the Panhandle. Cases ballooned in Louisiana and into East Texas in recent weeks, with coronavirus now confirmed in nearly every Texas county in the region, many of which are rural and have limited medical resources. Many also have large populations of African Americans, who are being infected with and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately high rates.
Public health experts say the spread of coronavirus in the region (and the state overall, which had nearly 20,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday evening) is likely dramatically undercounted due to limited testing. “We know it’s underreported [in Shelby County],” Singson told the Observer. Texas has been slow to roll out widespread testing, resulting in among the fewest completed tests per capita of any state.
As the Observer story notes, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at meat processing plants around the country, with the Smithfield outbreak in South Dakota being the worst so far. It’s not a surprise – workers are in close proximity, and there has been little done by their employers to keep them safe, which is typical for an industry that generally treats its employees terribly. Smithfield had the benefit of a union – you can listen to a short conversation with the local labor council president for Sioux Falls here if you want to learn more about that location – but it wasn’t enough. I can’t imagine the workers in Texas, at either location, having it any better. You want to know what’s in the future when and if we “reopen the economy” without a real plan and real resources for universal testing and worker protection, there you have it.
By the way, the city of Cactus, where the JBS plant is, is under an executive order requiring “everyone over the age of five” to “wear a covering over their mouth and nose when outside their home or vehicle”, with violators subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Sound familiar? Moore County voted 75% for Donald Trump in 2016. I’m just saying.