Worsening Outbreak at Colorado Meat Plant Impacts as Many as 300

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As many as 300 people have been “impacted” by the coronavirus at a Colorado meat plant, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said, adding that 14 people have been hospitalized.

It’s unclear whether that figure of 300 refers to positive cases, or just people who have been quarantined. If it does indicate the number of cases, it would be the largest outbreak yet at a major U.S. food facility.

“There are some 14 people hospitalized. Maybe 200 to 300 of the workforce have been impacted,” Pence said at press briefing Friday.

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JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat company, on April 8confirmed that a team member who worked at its Weld County facility in Greeley, Colorado, died from complications associated with Covid-19. Denver’s ABC 7 news channel on Fridayreported a second employee death in Greeley related to the virus, citing a union official.

“We currently have 36 JBS employees who have tested positive in Weld County and we are offering support to our team members and their families,” Andre Nogueira, chief executive officer for JBS USA, said in a statement Friday.

JBS also confirmed “increased absenteeism” at its Greeley beef production facility. The company said it was working in partnership with the U.S. federal government, Colorado Governor Jared Polis and Senator Cory Gardner to secure Covid-19 tests for all team members at the Greeley plant.

Deaths Expose Fears for Strength of U.S. Food-Supply Chain

President Donald Trump also referred to the outbreak at Colorado meat plants when speaking to reporters on Friday. Neither Pence nor Trump specified exactly which plant they were talking about. Greeley is about 65 miles northeast of Denver.

“We’re looking at this graph where everything’s looking beautiful and is coming down and then you’ve got this one spike. I said, ‘What happened to Denver?,’” Trump said. “And many people, very quickly.”

“By the way, they were on it like so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “This just happened. I just saw it this morning. So we’ll be looking at that. We don’t want cases like that happening.”

While it’s unclear whether the deaths and other cases had anything to with the workplace, the news exposes the fragility of global supply chains that are needed to keep grocery stores stocked after panic buying left shelves empty. Pence has said that these workers are “vital,” calling on them to “show up and do your job” to keep the nation fed.

Uproar Among Workers Supplying the World’s Meat Is Spreading

Plants across the U.S. are starting to reduce output or idle as cases spread from the main cities to rural America. Outbreaks have occurred in factories across the country in recent weeks, with hundreds of workers being sent home.

Laborers have, in some cases, staged walk-outs to protest working conditions. In meat plants, stations on processing lines can be close together, creating challenges for social distancing. Workers share break rooms and locker rooms.

The JBS Greeley plant is located in Weld County, which has just under 10% of Colorado’s total virus cases -- 614 of 6,202 as of April 9, based on state health department data. The numbers of deaths statewide, as of April 10, is 241, Governor Polis said at a news conference in Denver. The Greeley Tribune reported on April 9 that Weld County health officials estimated more than 30 JBS employees tested positive for the virus.

The Greeley plant employs more than 3,000 workers, according to the JBS website, and “exports more than 30% of its production to 20 different countries around the world, including Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.”

— With assistance by Josh Wingrove, and Justin Sink

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