SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — One year ago today, April 9, 2020, Smithfield Foods announced it would close its Sioux Falls pork processing plant for three days because of a coronavirus outbreak.
The day before, on April 8, 2020, the South Dakota Department of Health announced that more than 80 cases had been linked to the Sioux Falls plant.
It took less than a week for the situation at the Smithfield plant to change.
On April 10, the cases linked to Smithfield had made the fourth largest COVID-19 hot spot in the nation, according to COVID-19 case trackers.
On April 11, the S.D. DOH said 238 positive cases were linked to Smithfield. Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said they were urging Smithfield Foods to close the plant for at least 14 days.
“Today I am sending a joint letter with the mayor to Smithfield’s president and CEO. We recommend in that letter that Smithfield operations suspend for a minimum of 14 days as soon as possible to protect the employees, families, the Sioux Falls community and the people of South Dakota. This isolation period is consistent with what we understand as the incubation period of COVID-19,” Gov. Kristi Noem said on April 11.
Less than a week after the company announced the plant would close for three days, it announced on April 12 that the plant would be closed indefinitely because of COVID-19 cases.
Cases the DOH identified as linked to the Smithfield Sioux Falls plant grew as cases in South Dakota grew.
By April 13, tracking by the New York Times and KELOLAND News showed the Smithfield plant became the No. 1 COVID-19 hotspot in the nation. A total of 644 cases were linked to the plant.
By April 23, the DOH confirmed more than 800 Smithfield plant workers had tested positive; 206 COVID-19 cases had also been connected to the plant. At least two deaths had also been connected to the plant.
On April 24, the Sioux Falls area had 624 COVID-19 cases per capita.
More complete information about the April COVID-19 cases linked to the Sioux Falls plant wasn’t known or shared until months later. An Aug. 6 Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report which said there were 929 cases among employees and 210 cases among contacts as of April 25.
According to a CDC report released in August, the first COVID-19 case was reported to the state on March 24.
CDC has steps for Smithfield plant
While COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the area, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was working on a report on the Smithfield plant coronavirus situation. The CDC shared that 15-page report on April 23. Smithfield was to take the eight following steps:
- Developing and finalizing standard operating procedures for new infection prevention and control measures, especially related to supplementary disinfection of high-touch areas.
- Increasing engagement with the Beekeeper application. We were informed that approximately 1,400 employees have signed on to receive text messages from this system.
- Completing installation of plexiglass barriers in close contact workstations.
- Increasing the number of hand sanitizer dispensers in the plant to 3,500 (i.e., roughly 1 per employee).
- Installing over 100 additional time clocks to prevent bottlenecks.
- Promoting increased adoption of mass communication methods to communicate COVID-19 prevention and informational messages to employees. We learned that they are planning to start this process during the plant closure.
- Having designated staff walk around lines to provide hand sanitization to line employees every 30 minutes.
- Relaxing sick leave policies related to COVID-19. Eliminating premiums, copays, and waiting periods for COVID-19 testing.
Noem, TenHaken, Trump on meatpacking plant closures
But, it seemed there was some impatience while the plant was closed. Area pork producers lost a destination for product. State and federal officials shared concerns about the market loss and the closure’s impact on food supply.
About two weeks asking for Smithfield to close its plant, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said the goal was to get the plant open and get employees back to work but it had to be safe to do so.
“We’ve got one issue in a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but outside of that, two-thirds of our state has no cases or one case in an entire county so we’re doing very well as a state,” Noem told host Laura Ingraham on Thursday, an April 17, 2020 story on Fox News said. “We are addressing the one hot spot that we do have and aggressively testing in that area.”
An April 27, 2020, story in Forbes stated that Noem said that in an April 27 Fox News interview that she wanted the Smithfield plant to open in “a matter of days.”
On April 28, 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to have closed meat processing plants re-open.
“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” the order states, according to an April 28 Associated Press story.
On May 1, Noem announced she was waiting for more federal guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture on meatpacking plants before announcing a date for when the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls will reopen.
Smithfield said in a May 6 news release that it had received positive confirmation from the CDC and USDA and that it was in full compliance with CDC and OSHA guidance and would reopen the next day, May 7.
While the CDC was working with Smithfield and officials discussed the plant closure, the state and other partners organized mass COVID-19 testing clinics for Smithfield employees and their families.
The first mass testing event was May 4 at Washington High School.
The state, Avera, the CDC and the South Dakota National Guard coordinated the May 4 event.
A May 4 KELOLAND News story said “We contacted the company, which denied a request for a Zoom interview. A representative sent a statement about the testing.” The statement said the COVID-19 tests were voluntary.
On May 7 KELOLAND News reported that about 3,200 people were tested over three days. The testing was to end on May 7.
Cases are decreasing
By June 17, it appeared the outbreak related to Smithfield was dwindling.
Active cases had decreased for about a four-week period according to local health official Jill Franken.
“It’s great not to have so many people ill and battling COVID,” Franken told KELOLAND News on June 17. “If we can get through the next couple of weeks and we continue to see rates stay pretty stable, maybe we’ll be in a position where we can have some confidence that how we’re reacting with each other in the community is working out for us.”
The June 17 COVID-19 update for the Sioux Falls Metropolitan Statistical Area said that there were 236 active cased in the MSA with 207 in Minnehaha County.
Smithfield reluctant for information to be shared
A July 31 Associated Press story about the the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is investigation of a coronavirus outbreak at Smithfield’s plant in Sioux Falls said Smithfield and OSHA agreed on sharing information.
The agreement came after Smithfield asked a federal judge to quash OSHA’s subpeona to the S.D. DOH for information about the outbreak at Smithfield.
CDC releases report in August
The CDC report on the COVID-19 outbreak at the Smithfield plant was shared in August.
The 5-page report “highlights the potential for rapid transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in these types of facilities” in reference to facilities operating like a meat processing plant. The CDC report states factors of “high employee density in work and common areas, prolonged close contact between employees over the course of a shift, and substantial SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the surrounding community.”
According to the CDC report the South Dakota Health Department was notified on March 24 of a of a case of coronavirus in an employee at the meatpacking plant, an Aug. 6 story on KELOLAND News reported.
It initiated an investigation, isolated that employee and began identifying others who may have had contact with that employee.
By April 2, 19 cases were confirmed at the facility.
Less than two weeks later, the cases rose to 369 and the plant began a phased closure. It did not reopen while the CDC continued its investigation.
Within a one month period, the number of cases grew to 929; reporting 67 new cases per day, making it one of the nation’s hot spots. Two employees died.