Outbreak at Utah meatpacking plant spread even wider than previously known

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

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The epidemiologist for the northern Utah region where a meatpacking plant had a coronavirus outbreak says a significant portion of the area’s COVID-19 cases in the past six weeks can be traced to that facility.

That spread is subsiding, but the need for humanitarian relief is not.

A church and a local charity said this week they are combining to feed and support more than 500 families in Cache County.

“And we’re getting new ones every day,” said Michelle Welch, a volunteer at Hyde Park’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. “And we actually thought they were starting to taper off last week, and we got a huge jump yesterday.”

Welch said her church is providing food to 119 families who cannot go back to jobs at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum or another workplace due to coronavirus concerns.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Volunteers pack boxes of food donated to the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park to deliver to families impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

The plant employed 1,400 workers before a coronavirus outbreak struck there in late May. The Bear River Health Department said Thursday it has identified 385 employees who tested positive, up by nearly a hundred since the 287 reported a month ago.

While there have been no deaths tied to the outbreak, the impact of the infections can be seen in the numbers of the Bear River Health Department, which covers Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties. The department had a total of 98 coronavirus cases across its three counties on May 22.

After mass testing of JBS employees, the number shot up to 246 on June 1. On Friday, that health department reported 1,664 cases. Of those, 1,499 cases have been in Cache County, home to the plant. But infections have also spilled north.

Maggie Mann, director of Southeastern Idaho Public Health, which covers eight counties in the Gem State, said her district has had eight coronavirus cases linked to the JBS outbreak. Of those, Mann said, two patients worked at the facility.

“I would say a significant portion of our positive results could be linked back to JBS,” said Angie White, epidemiologist at Bear River Health Department.

The JBS outbreak primarily impacted northern Utah’s Hispanic community, White said. Many of the plant’s workers are immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. (There are also employees from Asia and Africa.) Those sick workers, White said, infected people in their households.

The health department opted not to try to force a closure of the plant. Its legal counsel, Cache County Attorney James Swink, cited an executive order from President Donald Trump declaring meatpacking plants essential businesses.

Swink said the order wasn’t necessarily legally binding upon the health department, but the its board wanted to honor Trump’s wishes.

JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said Friday that the plant is “not yet operating at full capacity.”

“It continues to improve,” she wrote in an email, “as more team members are returning to work after their completed quarantine periods.”

How to help

Here are a few of the churches and charities assisting families harmed by the outbreak. Some organizations have said they prefer donors call ahead to inquire about what is needed rather than just arriving with contributions.

• Cache Community Food Pantry: 435-753-7140 or www.cachefoodpantry.com.

• Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection: 435-915-6689 or www.cacherefugees.org.

• St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church: 435-752-1478 or www.stthomaslogan.org.

• Church of God Ebenezer in Hyrum: 435-245-3026.

• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Hyrum Stake: 435-232-3923.

JBS-related infections have dissipated in the past week to 10 days, White said. Since then, Bear River Health, especially Cache County, has seen the same kind of spread as the rest of Utah — one that isn’t focused on ethnicity so much as an age group, people 20 to 45.

Before the pandemic arrived in Utah, she said, JBS administrators came to her to review their plan for keeping the coronavirus out of the plant. Once the outbreak began, JBS assisted public health workers by providing the names and contact information of possibly infected co-workers so contact tracers could assess whether those employees were sick or needed to be quarantined.

“JBS has been absolutely wonderful to work with,” White said.

The director of the Cache Community Food Pantry has said JBS was donating pallets full of hamburger even before the infections at its plant.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Volunteer Nicole Riggs loads food into her car at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park to deliver to a family impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Amanda Barrandey, with Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection, said her organization is supporting 400 families with food and money for bills.

She said the humanitarian needs escalated “quickly because of so many workers there at JBS.”

Barrandey and Welch said some JBS workers remain under quarantine because either they or family members are sick. Some also fear returning to jobs because they live with someone who is at high risk for complications from COVID-19.

Welch said St. Thomas plans to continue its donations through July. Organizers call the crates of food volunteers deliver to doorsteps “COVID boxes.”