SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken are awaiting a response from Smithfield Foods after recommending the plant suspends operations for two weeks. According to the South Dakota Department of Health, 238 of the 438 positive cases in Minnehaha County are people who work at Smithfield Foods.
Mayor Paul TenHaken says the number of positive cases has been doubling every four days in Sioux Falls, and hundreds of the cases are linked to this plant.
“Our per capita data, we have 182.25 cases per hundred thousand residents. That is more than Seattle. That’s more than Chicago. That’s concerning. That’s very concerning and because of that, we think this action is very prudent,” Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said.
Noem and TenHaken sent this letter to the CEO of Smithfield Foods recommending that the plant suspend operations at the plant for at least 14 days in order to isolate workers from each another, test employees before they go back to work and disinfect work areas.
“This isolation period is what we understand to be consistent with the incubation period of COVID-19 based on the science behind the virus and it’s based on the date of this letter as well,” Governor Kristi Noem said.
The letter goes on to ask Smithfield to continue providing full pay and benefits to employees during the closure. Josh Clayton, the state epidemiologist, says they are trying to mitigate the spread of the virus through contact tracing.
“Which is focused on getting the individuals who are testing positive and having them isolate to home and then identifying those close contacts, which is where the Care 19 app does come into play and it does help with that, that process of where individuals have gone and where they may have been exposed,” state epidemiologist Josh Clayton said.
Kim Malsam-Rysdon, the secretary of health, says the number of people doing those tracing investigations has tripled. Malsam-Rysdon says they are also working with the state’s medical community to make sure there is more testing available for the Smithfield employees.
“We are grateful, as the governor indicated, that Avera and Sanford are going to be working on additional testing capacity to ensure that folks who do have symptoms have the ability to get a test. We will be doing that communication with folks so that they know how to access that testing,” Malsam-Rysdon said.
Avera and Sanford say they are working on joint testing efforts, but they will still be following already set CDC guidelines on who should be tested.
“The test itself is a precious commodity, so we want to make sure we test the right people. We will definitely work with Sanford to create a testing sight where we’re both there. We still should follow the same guidelines. If you have underlying medical conditions is when you should get tested. We just shouldn’t be testing everybody because it’s a precious commodity,” David Flicek, the CEO and President of Avera said.
This letter is only a recommendation to Smithfield, though, and not a mandate or law.
TenHaken also says there has so far been a lot of compliance from Smithfield. TenHaken says he feels the problem is more outside of the plant. Currently, Minnehaha County has a shelter in place set for people 65 and older. However, the mayor has recommended further steps from the governor.
“As of this morning, I actually made a formal request to the governor’s office to consider a shelter in place county-wide, for all of Lincoln and Minnehaha County. So, they’re reviewing that and determining if they feel that is something that’s right, right now,” TenHaken said.
In a statement posted earlier this week by the CEO of Smithfield, the CEO says the federal government has been clear about the essential role the plant plays in the food chain supply, and they can’t completely shut down their operations. TenHaken says he reached out for clarification about that.
“I did make a couple calls to several folks at the federal level this morning to better understand that. The USDA cannot mandate that anyone stays open, a plant like this,” TenHaken said.
TenHaken says if the plant complies with the recommendation, they won’t be working in full capacity, but there will still have to be some people working because of the complexity of the plant.