When COVID-19 hits a plant like a small town

KELOLAND.com Original

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., is seen Wednesday, April 8, 2020, where health officials reported more than 80 employees have confirmed cases of the coronavirus (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Smithfield pork processing plant employs 3,700 people, which is about the size of Dell Rapids (3,600) and Hot Springs (3,500) and larger than Canton, (3,300) and Milbank, (3,200).

The South Dakota Department of Health says 748 Smithfield employees have COVID-19. Another 143 positive COVID-19 cases are those who had close contact with Smithfield employees, the DOH said.

The Smithfield plant closed indefinitely on April 12, the company said. Today, JBS said it would be closing the pork processing plant in Worthington in Nobles County, Minnesota, indefinitely because of the coronavirus.

Matt Utecht president of the UFCW Local 663 union, said the Worthington plant had 30 total employees and close contacts of those employees test positive for COVID-19 as of today. The plant employs more than 2,000 people.

Dr. Josh Clayton of the S.D. DOH has said in multiple news briefings that each person with a COVID-19 has an average of 10 close contacts. At 748 employees that means 7,480 potential close contacts.

Clayton has described close contacts as about five minutes of time with someone in a living room or riding in a car, for example.

What would happen in a small South Dakota town if a majority of residents worked side by side in a meatpacking assembly line each day?

‘These are like mini-cities under one roof,” Utecht said of meat packing plants.

Gov. Kristi Noem has said in multiple news briefings that 30% to 60% of South Dakotans could get COVID-19. Noem said of those that contract COVID-19, 80% will have mild or not severe symptoms.

If 30% of Smithfield employees get COVID-19, that’s 1,110 people. That’s like a town the size of Tyndall (1,100) or Baltic (1,000) and larger than Tripp (676) or Canistota (680).

Meat processing plans may have more in common with a small town than just the number.

“These are really communities with strong family bonds and strong relationships between people,” Utecht said. “The families come together and, that, I don’t see in Minneapolis or a larger city.”

While Utecht sees that bond between the employee community, it can “almost work as a negative” in a COVID-19 situation.

JBS officials identified 40 Worthington plant employees who had at least close contact to Smithfield employees, Utecht said.

JBS draws 270 employees from Sioux Falls to work in Worthington, Utecht said. Many are transported in vans and a small portion drive themselves, Utecht said.

Utecht said he’d been working with JBS before today’s closure to ensure the safety of workers and to maintain at least a portion of the production.

“I will give credit to JBS, they worked with the union,” Utecht said.

JBS was protective early on, providing face masks, face shields, and other protective gear to employees, Utecht said.

Utecht was also working with JBS on reducing the workforce shift numbers so the plant could continue to operate, even at 50%. But when case numbers sharply increased from one to two to 19 on Thursday last week, Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials including from the state department of labor toured the site and, then, sought a shutdown, Utecht said.

Utecht said what happened at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls is a tragedy and no one wants that to happen again. He supports the state of Minnesota and JBS in the shutdown. The measure along with physical social distancing are measures that will work, Utecht said.

So far, at 748 of 3,700 employees, that is about 20% of the workforce, but the number Smithfield cases is a far greater percentage of the cases in Minnehaha County and the state than JBS is in Minnesota.

The 891 Smithfield and close contact cases is 53% of the 1,685 total cases in Sioux Falls. It’s 63.4% of the total 1,405 total cases in Minnehaha County. The total cases in Minnehaha County is about 83% of all the cases in the state.

State and local officials expect Smithfield numbers to grow as testing continues.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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