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Coronavirus outbreak at southwest Minnesota meat plant; transmission possible from Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls

The Worthington area has at least 30 cases, according to health officials.
JBS Pork

An outbreak of COVID-19 has been reported in staff at a meat packing plant in southwest Minnesota.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663 announced that there were 19 cases of the coronavirus at the JBS USA pork plant in Worthington, and it is calling on JBS to "slow production speeds to allow for more social distancing on the line to keep workers safe." 

The Minnesota Department of Health says it's been made aware of 30 cases of COVID-19 in the Worthington area, of which 7 have been confirmed to have been linked to the JBS plant, though Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm says she expects that number to rise.

UFCW represents 1,850 workers at the plant, which serves as the largest pork production facility in Minnesota. It's possible that the quick spread of the virus at the plant, which is still running, was transmitted from Smithfield Foods in nearby Sioux Falls, South Dakota. 

"There are a lot of family members that work at both," said Gov. Tim Walz, referring to JBS and Smithfield Foods, which has shut down after more than 700 workers and their close contacts have tested positive. 

Despite this, the JBS plant is staying open.

"Smithfield went from nothing to shut down overnight. That's not case here," Walz continued. "We have spoken, put a team down there to set up testing and ensure safe conditions across community."

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Social distancing measures to be implemented

"Production line speeds inside JBS and other food processing plants in Minnesota must be immediately slowed to make safe social distancing between workers possible," said UFCW President Matt Utecht, who urged the company to immediately require at least six feet between workers. 

"Failure to make this critical safety improvement will put our community and our nation's food supply at devastating risk." 

The 19 staff infected with COVID-19 are likely the cause of Nobles County seeing an increase of two confirmed cases on Thursday to 18 on Friday, although that total has only been announced by Noble County Administrator Tom Johnson, while the Minnesota Department of Health has only confirmed 12 cases in the county. 

Meat packing plants have suddenly become a major cause of concern for the spread of the coronavirus following the situation that has unfolded at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, close to the Minnesota border, where 735 employees and their close contacts have tested positive.

At a media briefing on Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said that he wants to test every worker at the state's food processing plants for the coronavirus as soon as possible, given how crucial they are for the food supply.

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