85 workers test positive for coroavirus at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Cudahy

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A total of 85 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Patrick Cudahy/Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Cudahy, the Cudahy Health Department said Friday.

The announcement came as the COVID-19 crisis in Wisconsin meatpacking and food processing plants intensifies.

At least one worker has died and 719 others have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Friday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has found as it continues to investigate the outbreaks affecting a key Wisconsin industry.

Both Cudahy’s mayor and Smithfield Foods, which has around 1,000 workers at its Cudahy plant, declined to provide the number of workers infected for more than a week, preventing the public from knowing the extent of the outbreak there.

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The state Department of Health Services had previously said it didn’t have that information available.

Employees who spoke in recent days with the Journal Sentinel said they suspected that dozens of workers had been infected. They said the first COVID-19 safety measures they remember the company taking came after some employees had already gotten the virus in mid-March.

The Journal Sentinel has now spoken with 13 workers at the plant.

Some said they were asked to work near other workers even if they were not provided  face masks or barriers to separate them. Most said they learned through co-workers about the first COVID-19 cases at the facility.

From last Friday through Tuesday, the Cudahy Health Department worked with other agencies and the company to provide free testing to plant workers. In all, 503 tests of employees identified 22 new workers who had been infected, according to the department’s statement. Another 31 results are pending. 

“Having testing of employees regardless of symptoms will help us quantify and reduce further spread of COVID-19 in both the staff and within the community,” Cudahy health officer Katie Lepak said in the statement.

Many of the plant workers live in Milwaukee’s south side, an area that has seen a spike of cases in the past weeks.

Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance for Smithfield Foods, said earlier this week that the plant was virtually closed, only essential employees were working thereand they are being provided protective equipment. 

In an earlier statement, the company said that since late February it has worked to ensure the health of its workers, taking measures such as adding hand sanitizing stations, implementing thermal scanning and enhancing cleaning and disinfection.

The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration opened an investigation into the plant after a Journal Sentinel story exposed worker concerns about safety practices. It did the same at other plants where the newspaper found problems.

“I am alarmed that Cudahy plant employees worked in close proximity to each other despite the need for physical distancing and reportedly weren’t provided masks until a few weeks ago,” U.S. Rep Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement.

In a letter to OSHA, Moore said it’s imperative for the plant to remain closed until the company can implement a plan to keep workers safe. 

“Working people are the backbone of our country and especially amid COVID-19, need to work in conditions that maintain their dignity and health,” she said in her statement.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and 17 other senators have signed a letter  to President Donald Trump that asks him to amend the executive order he issued earlier this week that requires meatpacking plants to remain open.

The letter asks him to mandate that meatpacking plants now closed can only reopen after they meet all safety guidelines issued by OSHA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Pete Frank, of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed to this report.

You can reach Maria Perez at maria.perez@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariajspl

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