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After 100 virus cases and 1 death, Tyson plant in southeastern Washington closes

The Tyson Fresh Meats beef production facility in Wallula announced Thursday that it will temporarily halt operations while more than 1,400 employees are tested for COVID-19, after more than 100 employees have already tested positive and one employee died. (Arielle Dreher / The Spokesman-Review)

WALLULA, Wash. – Cars and trucks streamed out of the Tyson Fresh Meats beef processing facility parking lot on Thursday, as employees finished their second-to-last shift before the company temporarily stops production.

The closure comes after more than 100 workers contracted COVID-19 over the past few weeks, and one worker died from the virus on Wednesday.

During the hiatus, which starts Friday, county health staff will test more than 1,400 Tyson employees at the plant.

Plant officials did not provide masks to workers until about April 13 and did not implement other social distancing strategies until last week, after 47 cases were traced to the facility on April 16. At the time, the county health department did not recommend the plant close.

Since then, the virus has continued to spread, with more than 50 additional employees testing positive since the outbreak was first identified.

Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, said in a news release that the plant has “worked with the local health department on more mitigation efforts and have accommodated all its recommendations for protective measures, which exceeded CDC guidelines. Despite these efforts, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in a collective decision to close and test all team members.”

Meghan DeBolt, director of the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, said Tyson’s screening and social distancing efforts did not have time to work. She also said that federal and state guidelines for food processing facilities were not published until April 16.

“Once those came out we were able to support Tyson a lot better on this, and we required them to implement everything,” DeBolt said.

Tyson slowed down its production lines, put up barriers in its cafeteria and implemented physical distancing, DeBolt said. County health workers inspected the facility earlier this week. DeBolt said the company could not get masks for its workers until around April 13, when it started requiring workers to wear them.

The Walla Walla County Department of Community Health received 1,500 test kits from the Washington State Department of Health to help mitigate the outbreak at the plant. DeBolt said Tyson voluntarily decided to close the plant, after discussions with public health officials.

“Where we’re at with total number of cases is too high, and we don’t want to get to a point of no return,” DeBolt said.

By testing all 1,400 employees, health officials will see how widespread transmission has been in the facility.

The Wallula plant sits near the Columbia River in Walla Walla County south of the Tri-Cities where many workers live.

On April 13, the Benton Franklin Health District, which covers the Tri-Cities, linked 30 people with COVID-19 to the Tyson plant. Friends and family members of workers launched social media efforts and a petition to close the plant. Workers at the plant are not unionized.

DeBolt chose not to close the plant on April 13, however, despite having the authority to do so.

At the time, in a news release, she said, “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. We know isolation and quarantine is not a natural state and thus, it is likely, even if we close the plant, that transmission amongst workers will continue while at home. We cannot guarantee that everyone will stay home, stay healthy.”

When asked about this decision Thursday, she said closing was “not a silver bullet that would fix it.”

Workers without symptoms will come to the plant early Friday morning to get tested, while those who are symptomatic will be tested later in the afternoon, she said.

She expects results to come back early next week. The facility will stay closed until all results have been processed.

Tyson Foods suspended operations Wednesday at a meat-processing facility in Iowa after 180 infections were linked to the plant – a number officials expect to increase. The company has also closed a plant in Indiana, where 146 employees tested positive for COVID-19. Other meat-processing plants around the country have also closed after coronavirus outbreaks were identified.

Employees in Wallula will continue to be paid as they self-isolate at home and await their test results, a Tyson news release said.

The majority of confirmed cases at the Tyson plant are in Benton and Franklin counties. Franklin County commissioners voted to “end recognition” of the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order earlier this week, despite COVID-19 case numbers that continue to climb in the Tri-Cities. On Thursday, they withdrew that resolution.

“The curve is still on the way up and certainly hasn’t flattened,” Rick Dawson, a senior surveillance manager at the Benton Franklin Health District said Thursday. “Currently, we are seeing an increase in hospitalizations, an increase in ER visits and an increase in emergency medical service calls over a week ago.”

There are 585 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Tri-Cities, with 178 additional probable cases. So far, 42 people have died in both counties due to the virus.

Health officials asked residents to wear face coverings in public and continue to physically distance from one another.

“We don’t think we’re where we need to be to relax restrictions,” Dawson said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.