Over the last week and a half, Utah has seen what the state health department called a “concerning spike in coronavirus cases.” While officials there attributed much of the increase to the state’s economy reopening, roughly a third of the new cases are also tied to an outbreak at a meat packing facility in Cache Valley.
Last week, the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum tested 1,024 of its employees and found 287 of them had the virus, according to the Bear River Health Department, which oversees the three most northern counties in the state. Delays in testing might also result in more positive cases this week.
While JBS announced in March it was taking precautions to protect its workers from the virus — such as health screenings for employees and increased physical distancing — it is one of many meat packing plants across the country that have struggled to contain the virus.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month, workers tested positive for COVID-19 in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities across 19 states. The data, however, preceded the outbreak in northern Utah.
Haden Davis, who manages the meat lab at Utah State University, said processing plants in general face huge challenges during the coronavirus pandemic because they are breeding grounds for disease. Workers are in close quarters in humid environments, cutting up dead animals.
Many are also immigrants, and with little to no sick leave protections, they’re not likely to take a day off.
“When they start to feel sick, they're not going to think about themselves,” Davis said. “They're going to think about their family. They’re going to think about putting food on the table, how much money they can send back to their home country.”
In an emailed statement, a JBS spokeswoman said the Hyrum plant has ramped up its safety and social distancing measures and requires anyone who is sick to stay home. Workers who test positive for COVID-19 also receive short-term disability pay and benefits.
Epidemiologists at the Bear River Health Department also monitor those who’ve tested positive — as well as anyone they may have exposed — but public information officer Joshua Greer said they can’t force people to stay home or follow safety precautions.
“We work with that individual and tell the individual this is what they have to do,” he said. “And we just plead with employers to do the right thing. Don't make your employees come to work sick.”
Cresencio López-González, a community organizer and professor of Latinx Studies at Utah State University, said many workers at JBS live with large families or many roommates and can easily spread the virus.
He said he’s also hearing from workers at other food processing plants in Cache Valley who are getting sick but facing pressure to keep working.
“I received a phone call from a daughter of one of these workers whose company is asking them to return to work,” López-González said. “So he's having to decide on whether he should go back, even though he's infected with the coronavirus.”
He said what sick workers need most is help with rent and food delivery, so they don’t have to risk exposing others to the disease. He’s organized two GoFundMe pages for families in need, as well as set up nine distribution sites for food donations and other items.
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon