As outbreak simmered, emails show pork plant resisted testing and government withheld information

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As fears spread about outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking facilities across the country earlier this year, the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington repeatedly resisted testing all 2,400 of its employees, according to email records and conference call notes involving the Minnesota Department of Health and Nobles County.

The records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES found state and local government leaders also held back public information at the height of the outbreak when an infected JBS employee died from COVID-19 in early May.

Not "completely" honest

The top public information officer for Nobles County admits that he was "not completely" honest when asked by a member of the media whether a JBS worker had died from the virus.

Tom Johnson denied knowing, saying "all of our information comes from MDH with very little detail."

However, emails obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES show Johnson had been alerted the previous day by MDH officials that there had in fact been a COVID-19-related death linked to the plant’s workforce.

During an interview, Johnson said his response "felt like the right thing at the time."

Johnson was following the lead of state health officials who also tried to withhold public information about the worker’s death even as the outbreak peaked.

"There will be a death reported tomorrow for Nobles County… We know the person was a JBS employee, but we would not proactively disclose that," an assistant public information officer for MDH wrote to Johnson and another county staff member.

State Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann acknowledged the deceased man’s connection to JBS and other details about him would have become public, but she also defended her department’s decision to initially withhold the information.

"We have reported and disclosed all deaths from COVID-19," Ehresmann said. "We may have a situation where, ultimately, we know that this death record will be made public, but we wait for that process because that gives more time for the family."

Left in the dark

That answer did not satisfy Jessica Velasco who is a lead organizer for the group NAVIGATE/Unidos MN and an advocate for the largely immigrant workforce at JBS – Nobles County’s largest employer.

"This is not a normal situation in which someone passes on," Velasco said.

At the time of the worker’s death, the JBS plant had briefly shut down and reopened over the objections of workers who raised concerns for their safety.

More from KSTP:

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Velasco said some employees felt left in the dark.

"So many folks did not know (about the death) because they were not on his line," Velasco said. "That is important information that the folks who work there, who worked shoulder to shoulder next to him, who were in the same locker space as him – that is important information that you need to disclose."

MDH had been giving the public daily updates about the number of workers at the plant who tested positive for COVID-19, but the agency treated the plant’s first death differently.

"I absolutely understand that (workers) would feel like, ‘Hey, we wanted to know that.’ On the other hand, it didn’t change our recommendations," Ehresmann said.

Resistance to testing

Just weeks earlier, public health officials were the ones asking for more transparency from management at JBS as they tried to head off a larger outbreak at the plant.

Conference call notes from April 17 involving MDH, Nobles County and Sanford Health show JBS "expressed reluctance at the notion of testing all employees."

On April 19, just one day before the outbreak of COVID-19 forced JBS to shut down operations, the Governor’s Office wanted "everyone in the plant tested."

JBS responded "absolutely not," according to a Sanford employee who relayed the answer.

The company has repeatedly declined interview requests from 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, but a corporate spokesperson for JBS USA & Pilgrim’s wrote:

"The ongoing conversations with the state and local health departments during that time were focused on collaborating and getting the right plans in place, including the need to test the plant population as a part of the community. We did not believe targeting our asymptomatic employees for forced testing absent a community-wide testing strategy to better understand community spread was a sound risk mitigation strategy."

MDH Deputy Commissioner Margaret Kelly offered her own perspective about why JBS initially resisted testing all employees.

"JBS is a big employer in a small community and the question always is, ‘Where did the virus come from,’" Kelly said. "I don’t believe JBS wanted the perception to be that this was their virus."

JBS says it has since offered voluntary testing to all of its employees and is "participating contact tracing in partnership with local health authorities."

Others say there’s more work to be done.

"Our communities of color work hard. They’re the ones who are impacted, they’re the ones who go to work," Velasco said. "And they’re still at risk."

Click here to read JBS’ full statement.