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Eastern Washington meat plant sees cluster of 47 virus cases, remains open

The parking lot is mostly empty outside a Tyson Foods processing plant during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Columbus Junction, Iowa. A Tyson Fresh Meats processing facility in Wallula, Washington, has seen a cluster of cases but continues to operate. (Joseph Cress / Associated Press)

A cluster of COVID-19 cases that spread across three Eastern Washington counties has been traced to a meat processing plant in Wallula.

As of Wednesday, a total of 47 cases – 41 in the Benton-Franklin Health District and six in the Walla Walla County Health District – have been traced to the Tyson Fresh Meats processing facility.

The processing plant, which employs about 1,400 people, is located in Walla Walla County but is close to the Franklin County line, and the majority of its employees live in the Tri-Cities.

Tyson has taken extra steps in the last several weeks to screen employees as they arrive for work, provide more distance between work stations and in some cases put plastic dividers between them.

Everyone entering the facility has their temperature taken, and anyone who tests higher than 100.4 degrees is turned away. When an employee tests positive, the company inspects, cleans and sanitizes that employee’s work space and locker. Employees in contact with a person who tests positive are put on a 14-day isolation leave from the workplace.

County health officials have not asked the plant to shut down.

“We don’t feel that’s a workable solution at this time,” said Liz Jessee, communications officer for the Walla Walla County Health District, which has jurisdiction over the facility.

If all the workers are laid off, they be exposed to COVID-19, either by when they went out in the community or when someone they live with goes out in the community and brings it back with them. They could then come back with a case when the plant reopened, she said.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he hadn’t been briefed on the situation at the Tyson plant. He said he may have the authority to close a facility to prevent the spread of the virus but “it’s not something we’ve thought about for any particular company or site at the moment.”

The Wallula Tyson plant is not the only meat processing facility to see a cluster of COVID-19 cases.

Smithfield Foods, Inc., which had already closed its meat packing operation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after hundreds of employees tested positive for the virus, announced Wednesday it was also closing plants in Wisconsin and Missouri, according to wire reports.

Tyson has closed a facility in Iowa. Cargill and National Beef Packing Co. have also closed plants.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there is “currently no evidence” the novel coronavirus can be spread through food or food packaging. Like other viruses, it can survive on some surfaces or objects, so the FDA recommends following the steps of cleaning, separating, cooking and chilling food, and washing hands and surfaces often.

The Wallula Tyson plant has masks available for workers but doesn’t require them to be worn on the job, Jessee said. The number of workers, and the need to change them several times a day, after a worker eats lunch or takes a break, could add up to thousands of masks a day.

“We’re lucky if we get a delivery of 3,000 masks at a time” in Walla Walla County, Jessee said.

Because of a potential shortage of masks, the county has established tiers for who gets them. The top tier is for staff at hospitals, other medical facilities and long-term care facilities. Meat processing plant workers would be farther down the list, she said.

Walla Walla has only had two people hospitalized thus far with COVID-19, but the state has set up an acute care facility in Walla Walla General Hospital, which closed several years ago except for an urgent care facility on the main floor, she said. The Washington National Guard delivered and set up 60 beds in the empty hospital rooms to handle a possible overflow from hospitals in the region.

So far the beds are empty and “maybe we’ll get through this thing without having to use it,” Jessee said.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed from an earlier version to clarify the concerns of the spread of the virus among workers who would be home if the plant were shut down.