Brown County COVID-19 cases increase to 856 amid aggressive testing at plants

JBS beef facility in Green Bay. (WBAY Photo)
Published: Apr. 27, 2020 at 12:25 PM CDT
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The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Brown County and Oneida Nation jumped to 856 Monday as more results came in from outbreaks linked to food plants in the area.

The countywide total increased by about 230 positive cases from Friday to Monday.

Brown County Public Health says 255 JBS employees have tested positive for COVID-19. On Friday, that number was 189.

JBS announced Sunday that it had temporarily closed the plant on Lime Kiln Road due to the outbreak. It was a decision made by the company, according to health officials.

"We will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate. The health and safety of our team members remains our number one priority. The Green Bay facility is open and operational, though production capacity has been reduced," reads a statement from JBS.

In other outbreaks, American Foods Group in Green Bay has 130 employees who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Sausage maker Salm Partners in Demark has 17 employees with positive tests.

"It's a very fluid process. Things change, sometimes over the course of minutes per day," says Brown County Public Health Strategist Claire Paprocki. "I wouldn't say it's a matter of the county stepping in or not stepping in. We've been in contact with all three facilities. JBS made the decision to close voluntarily and we support them. If they stayed open this week we would discuss that but JBS made the decision voluntarily."

"We are working with anxiety, because we don't know seeing the news how many are ill at the moment with COVID-19, and we still have to show up for work," one JBS worker tells Action 2 News.

With the help of a translator, that worker who did not want to be identified describes feeling anxiety for weeks going into work.

The person says they were never given a test when they asked for one instead being told workers in that department, "We were easier to be replaced."

The worker says people in other departments got another message: "You are going to be tested and if you come positive, you will, I ask you to keep working. Don't say anything. If you do, they will fire you."

In a statement Monday afternoon, a JBS spokesperson responded to those allegations: "Symptomatic team members were tested prior to entering the facility in coordination with the CDC and local health officials. No one was told to keep results secret. Our only goals for both testing and plant closure are to help combat community spread, and protect the health and safety of our workforce."

In addition, the company says nobody in the human resources department ever threatened to fire any employees who tested positive.

JBS previously closed plants in Minnesota and Colorado due to outbreaks among employees. Action 2 News reached out to the company for more details about the Green Bay closure and has not yet received a response.

The county does not yet have a precise number of people who were infected through close contact with those employees. Health workers are performing contact tracing--finding people who had interactions with the infected workers and who may need testing or to quarantine.

The rise in positive tests is attributed to aggressive testing. Brown County has received 2,200 testing kits from the state to use on workers at the meat packing facilities.

The CDC and Public Health conducted walk throughts at the three facilities last week and made recommendations regarding separating people in break rooms and physical distancing. Paprocki says JBS had installed Plexiglas.

A Department of Labor spokesperson tells Action 2 News that OSHA has opened investigations at the following Wisconsin companies:

· Smithfield/Patrick Cudahy Plant in Cudahy

· American Foods Group in Green Bay

· JBS in Green Bay

· Salm Partners in Denmark

· TNT Crust in Green Bay

· Birds Eye Foods in Darien

The health department continues to stress physical distancing. They say the spread has been attributed to people not practicing distancing and not following the state's Safer at Home guidelines.

Paprocki says the health department has not seen any outbreaks linked to in-person voting during the April 7 election.

Countywide, 22 people are hospitalized with COVID-19. Two people have died. Thirty-five people are out of isolation.

"Any time you have such a big outbreak and so many employees--a percentage of your employees becoming positive--there are a lot of factors all of a sudden that make this happen. Number one is your workforce is reduced so your ability to operate your plant is harder and harder. From a health care perspective, we want to make sure we contain this virus the best we can, not continue to expose people. Hopefully all the people that aren't coming to work are staying at home and quarantining. That's the only way this works, though," says Prevea Health President and CEO Dr. Ashok Rai.

"If you think about the close quarters of a meat packing plant and knowing that we are still testing more employees throughout the city, and their relatives, and other people they've been in contact with--close contact--we expect the numbers associated with that and the other meat packaging plants to go up over this time. We also hope with some of these decisions people will stay at home better, they will quarantine better, and then over time this week we should start to see that number go down."

Dr. Rai says we should expect cases in the county to go up as a result of the testing. He hopes we'll start seeing a decline after the testing is complete.

"I do expect in the next couple of days our numbers to go up a little bit because we're still testing a lot of people associated with those breakouts and those tests are going to be coming back. I said 24-to-48 hours to get a test, so those tested on Friday, which was a lot of people, those test results will come back today. So expect there to be a lag. So expect our case numbers to go up for the next couple of days, maybe even longer. But then we hope with the self-quarantining activity, the advice we're giving to those employers and those communities, that we'll start to see a downward decline in our numbers coming into the next weekend, unless there's another breakout or one of the other breakouts gets much larger," says Dr. Rai.