COVID-19 cases spike in Nobles County; meat packing plant preparing for spread

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COVID-19 is spreading through a pork processing plant in southwest Minnesota, fueling concerns about a possible outbreak that would have a devastating impact on the local economy and the national food supply.

At least seven workers at the JBS plant in Worthington have tested positive and the number is expected to keep rising in the coming days, the Minnesota Department of Health announced Friday.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 633 issued a statement saying 19 plant workers have already tested positive.

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The rise in cases comes a week after the Smithfield Pork Processing plant in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D. suddenly shut down because of an outbreak that turned it into one of largest coronavirus hotspots in the country.

Only 60 miles separate the two plants, and Gov. Tim Walz confirmed that his initial fears of it spreading to Worthington are now a reality.

"There’s a lot of family members that work in both plants…a lot of cross-contamination from both plants," he said.

Walz applauded the safety measures already in place at JBS and says state health officials will expedite additional testing and contact tracing.

Sanford Health — the primary health care provider in the area — set up a drive-through testing center Friday morning.

A company spokesperson said significant steps are being taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, including screening 2,000 workers before they enter and exit the plant.

But three current JBS workers, who didn’t want to be identified, spoke with 5 INVESTIGATES by phone and said the safety measures aren’t enough.

"There’s no way to do social distancing inside the plant," one of the workers said in Spanish.

Two other workers said JBS managers told them there was only one positive test at the plant at the beginning of this week.

"They didn’t inform us (there were more cases)," said one worker. "We found out through the news."

While some workers said the plant should be closed now, UFCW is calling for a slowdown in production, saying it’s the only way to maintain social distancing on the production line.

"Failure to make this critical safety improvement will put our community and our nation’s food supply at devastating risk," said Matt Utecht, the Local 633 president.

A larger-scale shutdown — or even a pause in production —would have a "tremendous" impact on the local economy, according to Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson

"We’re going to see more cases, but if we can just keep it from any wide spread, that’s what we’re hoping for," Robinson said.

Click here to read the full statement from JBS.