Cache County wants to move to ‘green’ despite coronavirus outbreak at meatpacking plant

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) JBS workers protest Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Logan. Hundreds of workers at the meatpacking plant in Hyrum have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Despite a spike in cases — particularly with an outbreak at a Hyrum meatpacking plant — and rising worries about hospital capacity, the Cache County Council has voted to ask the state to move northern Utah to the “green” or normal risk phase for the coronavirus.

Councilwoman Gina Worthen said the restrictions are harming restaurants and businesses — and believes they’re not helping people.

“This is for a virus that has a 1% death rate. I can’t help but think, ‘What are we doing?’” she said during the Tuesday night meeting. “People can be responsible for their own health. That’s what America is all about.”

Worthen said people die at higher rates in car crashes and from cancer than the coronavirus, insisting there’s “no clear and present danger” in Cache County or its biggest city, Logan.

“Those aren’t fair comparisons,” Councilman Jon White countered, noting the virus has infected people over the past several months instead of over a lifetime.

Still, White was outvoted 6-1, with Councilman Gordon Zilles stating that he’s in the older, more vulnerable population, and is tired of feeling “locked up.”

“Let’s get the herd vaccination over with,” Zilles said. “I’m in the age group that’s most likely to die, but I’ve had a good life and I say let’s get on with it. That may sound like I’m being pretty casual about it, but that’s the way I feel.”

Gov. Gary Herbert has put most of Utah in the “yellow,” or low risk, phase — a decree that is to run until at least Friday.

Meanwhile, the attorney for a northern Utah health district with jurisdiction over the Hyrum meatpacking plant acknowledged Wednesday it might have the power to close the facility despite an executive order from President Donald Trump.

“If we’re going to violate that order, we want some pretty extensive circumstances,” said James Swink, the Cache County attorney and legal counsel for the Bear River Health District.

The health district has said 287 workers from the JBS Beef Plant tested positive for COVID-19 during mass testing held for employees the weekend of May 30. The number is likely higher, given some workers sought testing at hospitals or from their family physicians.

Worries about hospital capacity

Utah reported another 305 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and one more death. The latest fatality is that of a Davis County woman, between age 60 and 85, who was hospitalized at the time of her death. Her death brings the state’s toll of fatalities from COVID-19 to 128.

The rise in confirmed cases — the 14th straight day the state has reported more than 200 new daily cases — boosts the total tally of cases in Utah since the pandemic began to 12,864.

Another 23 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19, compared to the previous day’s report. That brings the total number of Utahns hospitalized to 954, with 130 positive COVID-19 cases in hospitals now.

Greg Bell, president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association, said he worries about the spike statewide, and it’s already impacting capacity at intensive care units. Utah is using 60% of its ICU beds — 81 for COVID patients and 271 for other illnesses.

With those full, the state has about 230 open beds remaining.

“You only have so many beds," Bell said, “so we’re concerned.”

Not all coronavirus patients hospitalized go to the ICU, he added, and facilities can expand their capacities if needed.

"We’re fine right now,” Bell said. “But while we’re not hitting the panic button yet, we could see a lot more hospitalizations” with the recent surge in cases.

Legal tug of war

In April, Trump issued an order calling meat-processing plants essential businesses that should stay open. In doing so, he invoked the Defense Production Act, a law providing for wartime mobilization.

Rather than order the JBS plant closed, a spokesman for Bear River Health earlier this week cited Trump’s order as rationale for keeping cows arriving in the corals and hamburger and steaks moving out the loading docks. That spokesman said it was up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture whether to shutter the plant.

On Wednesday, Public Citizen, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., noted there was no legal basis for the federal government to override a decision by a health department to close a business that is a public risk.

“There hasn’t been any court challenge on the specific issue yet,” wrote Adam Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen, “but the consensus among the legal community is that there is simply nothing in the Defense Production Act that gives the federal government [power] to preempt otherwise applicable public health laws.”

Prosecuting attorney James Swink listens during a court hearing in Logan in 2018.

Bear River Health is overseen by a board comprised of elected and appointed officials from Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties. No one on the board appears to be a person of color, while the 1,400 workers at the plant are mostly immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Swink pointed to a difference of opinion about whether a presidential order has jurisdiction in a health district’s ability to regulate a meatpacking plant. Even if the board believed it has the legal authority to close the plant, he said, it wants to respect Trump’s wishes.

“We’re conscious of keeping the food supply on line, too,” Swink said, “and at the same time keep people safe.”

He said a specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to be at the plant Friday to help contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, the facility remains partially open.

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) Rafael Mojica and other JBS workers protest Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Logan. Hundreds of workers at the meatpacking plant in Hyrum have tested positive for COVID-19.

Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for Colorado-based JBS, wrote in an email that some of the workers who tested positive May 30 returned to work Wednesday. CDC guidelines say people who tested positive may exit quarantine after 10 days if they have gone 72 hours without symptoms.

Cache County reported 805 cases as of Tuesday afternoon — a gain of 32 over the previous day.

Josh Greer, a spokesman for Bear River Health, said contact tracers were working to understand how many of those new cases are connected to the outbreak at the JBS plant.

“It’s probably safe to say," Greer said, “that more than those original 287 had some kind of link to it.”

— Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.