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Update: Tyson Fresh Meats in Walla Walla County linked to numerous COVID-19 cases

  • Updated
  • 4 min to read
Tyson Fresh Meats

Tyson Fresh Meats plant on Dodd Road in Wallula.

Walla Walla County health officials confirmed Monday that six positive cases of COVID-19 in Walla Walla County are linked to employment at Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula.

The Benton-Franklin Health District reported 28 more positive tests are from Tyson employees who live in Benton and Franklin counties, with two additional probable cases, bringing the total number of linked cases to 30.

This is considered a multi-county outbreak, said Meghan DeBolt, director of Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.

Two additional work places in Wallula employ people who have tested positive for the coronavirus, she said. She did not name the other employers.

None of the Walla Walla area people with the Tyson-connected coronavirus, which includes family members of employees, have been hospitalized, she has said.

The beef production plant on Dodd Road employs about 1,400 people. Elsewhere, Tyson Foods and other meat-producing plants have had similar breakouts of the coronavirus among workers.

Tyson Foods, headquartered in Arkansas, has closed plants in Pennsylvania and Iowa, and an outbreak is being investigated at a Tyson plant in Tennessee.

News stories show production plant closures are raising concerns about meat shortages.

“The meat supply chain is especially vulnerable since processing is increasingly done at massive plants that butcher tens of thousands of animals daily, so the closure of even a few big ones can quickly be felt by customers,” the Associated Press reported.

For each confirmed case of the coronavirus at the Wallula plant, exposure could spread to another two to five household members, DeBolt said.

“That’s where we see these family clusters,” she pointed out, noting health department teams have been tracing in-person contact connections for each case.

DeBolt and her staff are working with the Benton-Franklin Health District and Washington state Department of Health, as well as managers at the plant, on this matter. After conferencing with all partners and a site visit Monday, health officials said they believe Tyson is making a concerted effort to minimize virus transmission on site.

Keeping the plant open and running is the right choice for now, DeBolt told the Union-Bulletin.

“We have two options — close the plant for 14 days and hope their employees stay under quarantine for those two weeks while at home, or work with them to be successful in prevention efforts,” she said.

Isolation and quarantine are not natural states for people and it’s likely that even if the plant is closed, virus transmission among workers will continue while they are home, DeBolt said.

“The plant is probably safer than home if they are not doing proper social distancing there. And then coming back to work.”

However, corporate plans to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 on employees and others are only as good as they are implemented, and seeing that effort firsthand on Monday helped assure officials Tyson is taking the issue very seriously, she said.

“They know without their workers, they are nothing.”

Additional preventative measures need to be put in place quickly, Debolt said.

The company said Monday it is working to protect team members while trying to continue operations.

“We’ve been checking worker temperatures, providing face coverings and initiating additional cleaning,” said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson.

“We’ve implemented social-distancing measures, such as installing workstation dividers and providing more break-room space. We relaxed our attendance policy in March to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick. We’ve also been educating team members on COVID-19, including the importance of following CDC guidelines away from work,” he said.

Tyson’s efforts are not fully in place at the Wallula facility, but DeBolt said she is hopeful those will be in the next few days.

Other efforts at Tyson will include the following:

  • Thoroughly clean and sanitize the workstation and locker of an employee confirmed with COVID-19, and put all who were in contact with that person on a 14-day isolation from work.
  • A 30-minute gap between start and end times of shift changes to provide proper physical distancing between people and to allow enough time for the air to be cleared.
  • Installation of a large, vented outdoor tent for employees to have greater separation for breaks and meals. Lunch breaks will be further staggered, and the cafeteria will have markings where people can stand in line and sit to eat.

A maximum occupancy number will be set and monitored.

  • Stop all cash transactions in the plant.

Badges instead are scanned for payment.

  • Increased air filtration.
  • Automatic hand sanitizer stations are installed around the facility.

Thirteen employees are tasked solely with sanitizing frequently touched surfaces. The entire plant is cleaned and sanitized every weekend.

These measures should not be interpreted as punitive to employees, DeBolt said.

The hope is that seeing such efforts at work will instill a sense of social responsibility among employees.

The Wallula plant has ordered more protective wear and provided surgical masks for all employees; however, they are not required to wear the masks, DeBolt said.

There could be more positive COVID-19 test results from the Wallula plant situation, officials said in a statement.

“Since prevention efforts started only a week ago, we will not see their full effect for at least another week. We know there will be more cases in the coming days that are associated with exposure at the plant,” DeBolt said.

She anticipates a “flattening of the curve’’ once prevention efforts are fully established. If that doesn’t happen, more evaluation will be done, she said.

Experts do not have any evidence to suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, DeBolt said.

Tyson Foods has announced plans to give up to $60 million in bonuses to 116,000 front-line team members and Tyson truckers in the United States as they work to keep grocery stores stocked with meat during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to multiple media reports.

The company said in March that workers can qualify for a $500 bonus to be paid during the first week of July, based on what it called a “relaxed” COVID-19 attendance policy from April through June.

“Our meat and poultry plants are experiencing varying levels of production impact, due to the planned implementation of additional worker safety precautions and worker absenteeism,” said Tyson Chief Executive Noel White in a statement.

A Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota was forced to close after nearly 300 of the plant’s 3,700 workers tested positive for the virus. That plant produces roughly 5% of the daily U.S. pork supply, the AP story said.

The reduced national meat production so far has been offset by the significant amount of product that was in cold storage, said Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University.

Shoppers might begin to find more empty shelves or higher prices at the store, depending on how many plants close and for how long. Tonsor said at least half a dozen plants have closed temporarily, but that’s across the pork, chicken and beef sectors, the AP reported, noting Tonsor said the situation is manageable for now.

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.