Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula was set to reopen today, resuming operation of the state’s biggest beef processing plant after mass COVID-19 testing of most of its workforce over the past 12 days.
The reopening was announced this morning in a joint release from Tyson and Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.
Tyson had come under scrutiny, along with many other meat processing facilities across the country, for its handling of coronavirus outbreaks. More than 100 people had tested positive for the virus before the plant shut down for mass testing April 24.
As of Monday afternoon, according to data from Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, only 38 results are pending of the 1,277 tests administered.
Three more employees tested positive Monday, bringing the total number of positive cases during the mass screening to 147 — nearly 12% of the recently tested workforce.
Combined with the cases before the closure, Tyson is connected to at least 253 confirmed cases of the virus. That number represents about 18% of its total workforce.
Just 10 of those are residents of Walla Walla County. The number of Walla Walla residents was originally thought to be 15 but was adjusted after health officials determined the employees reside elsewhere.
With the plant’s location on the western edge of the county, the majority of employees live in Benton and Franklin counties. Those communities have had much higher rates of infection, including one death, connected to the plant.
“We would like to thank Tyson for continuing to take these measures seriously and putting the safety and welfare of their employees first,” Community Health Director Meghan DeBolt said in the release.
“We would also like to thank our (Community Health) team and Providence St. Mary Medical Center for helping test such a large number of Tyson employees quickly and efficiently. This was a huge team effort by everyone and a testament to the readiness of Walla Walla County to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak.”
Tests were also conducted for 19 USDA inspectors assigned to the facility but not employed by Tyson. Whether any of them were among those infected was not distinguished in the numbers.
According to the statement from Tyson, the company planned to resume limited operations today. How many employees would be there was not clear.
Tyson workers will be required to go through a strict regimen of testing, education and prevention, the announcement said.
“The health and safety of our team members is our top priority,” said Shane Miller, Tyson senior vice president and general manager of beef. “While the plant was idle, we performed a deep clean and sanitization of the facility and took proactive steps to complement our existing prevention efforts.
“Information is the best tool to fight COVID-19 and we’re focused on further educating our team members about CDC guidance to prevent spreading the virus. We have a diverse workforce and will provide this education in all languages spoken among our team members.”
Critics of the company’s handling of the outbreak said Tyson was not doing a good job making sure non-English speakers understood proper protocols.
The ad hoc group Friends of Tyson Workers said the company’s movements have been too little and too late, given the high rate of infection among employees before the mass testing began.
“Washington and Walla Walla County have to hold Tyson accountable or workers will continue getting sick and we will see more deaths,” the group said via email this morning. “... Tyson’s corporate lobbyists convinced federal lawmakers including Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell to relieve them of any liability related to exposing workers and consumers to COVID-19. It will soon be the law of the land that Tyson’s profits are worth more than their workers’ lives.”
President Trump ordered the Defense Production Act to be applied to the meat processing industry last week following pressure from industry leaders.
According to the Tyson release, workers were asked to self-isolate until test results returned. Employees who tested positive are clear to return to work after seven symptom-free days.
Employees awaiting results will need to remain isolated until health officials complete their tests. New hires will also have to be tested.
According to the release, Tyson supervisors will conduct a tour of the facility with returning employees to show changes made to promote social distancing and additional protective measures, such as infrared thermometers, face masks, social distancing managers and workstation barriers.
In addition, employees must undergo regular wellness checks. Tyson said a mobile medical clinic has been set up at the facility on Dodd Road with a partnership from Matrix Medical Network.
Tyson said it will double the amount of its hazard pay, which the company calls “thank you” bonuses. Workers on-site and those who can’t work because of illness or lack of childcare are eligible.
Family members of Tyson workers previously told the U-B the bonuses were only for those who didn’t call in sick.
The company said it will increase short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until June 30.