COVID-19 cases linked to JBS outbreak up to 189; no plans to close plant

Courtesy: Associated Press
Courtesy: Associated Press(WBAY)
Published: Apr. 23, 2020 at 12:26 PM CDT
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Brown County Public Heath says the number of COVID-19 cases attributed to an outbreak linked to workers at the JBS beef plant in Green Bay has increased to 189.

That's an additional 42 cases from Wednesday, when the department announced 147 cases in people who work at JBS and those who have had close contact with infected workers. Those initial 147 cases were confirmed prior to the start of on-site testing.

Late Thursday afternoon, JBS issued a statement to Action 2 News saying it wouldn't operate a plant if it didn't think it was safe or if there weren't enough workers to operate safely. It told us the Green Bay plant remains operational at a reduced production capacity (read the complete statement at the end of this article).

Brown County Public Health says the increase in positive test results was expected. There has been "aggressive" on-site testing of employees since Monday at the meat packing facility on Lime Kiln Road. Health officials say workers are tested as they report for their shift and every employee is screened for signs of illness before starting work.

The health department is asking essential workers who are feeling ill to stay home from work.

During a call with local media, reporters asked Brown County health officials if the outbreak was from JBS failing to protect employees. Officials said the spread had more to do with "community spread and not practicing social distancing."

Workers have been given masks and personal protective equipment. The company has put up plexiglass to help protect people who are working closely together.

The department also announced an increase in confirmed cases linked to American Foods Group in Green Bay. The positive cases increased from 39 on Wednesday to 55 on Thursday.

Cases at sausage maker Salm Partners in Denmark increased from 19 to 23

Brown County Public Health toured the JBS plant Thursday morning.

On Thursday, Public Health Strategist Claire Paprocki clarified who has authority over decisions regarding the potential closure of the plant. Paprocki previously said the decision would be up to federal officials with the USDA and OSHA. On Thursday, she said Brown County Public Health does have the authority to order the closure of the plant.

The health department is not ordering the closure of JBS at this time. They will, however, if they believe there is a threat to public health.

"We will use the information to determine the best course of action. If necessary to protect the public health, we will determine action at that time. No need at this time," said Paprocki.

JBS can voluntarily close the plant. They've done that after outbreaks in facilities in Worthington, Minnesota, and Greeley, Colorado.

Brown County's overall confirmed cases of coronavirus increased to 511 on Thursday. The Oneida Nation Public Health Department reported six cases, bringing the total to 517. That's up from 416 countywide cases reported Wednesday.

Twenty-two people are hospitalized in Brown County. The department did not say how many of those patients are on ventilators.

The state says 22 patients in Northeast Wisconsin hospitals are on mechanical ventilation. Again, it's unknown how many are connected to the JBS outbreak.

to view hospital numbers.

Paprocki attributes the increase in confirmed cases to people not practicing social distancing.

Paprocki also said they've have "strong indications" that some cases are related to Easter gatherings, which health officials warned against.

The county has not been able to connect an increase in positive cases to in-person voting during the April 7 primary election.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Wisconsin Department of Health Services are helping the local health officials pinpoint the origin of the spread.

Thirty-five people have been released from isolation.

Symptoms and Prevention

Brown County Public Health strongly emphasized the need to maintain physical distance, saying its recent surge is the result of people spreading the virus by close contact. It says people are safer in their homes and should reduce contact with people outside of their household, even relatives.

People of all ages can get sick from the coronavirus. It's a new virus, and nobody has natural immunity to it. The CDC says symptoms may appear between 2 and 14 days after contact with an infected person, but studies find 1 in 4 people carrying (and potentially spreading) the virus may have no symptoms.

Symptoms include a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Emergency signs include pain and pressure in the chest, confusion, trouble breathing, and bluish lips or face.

"The virus is found in droplets from the throat and nose. When someone coughs or sneezes, other people near them can breathe in those droplets. The virus can also spread when someone touches an object with the virus on it. If that person touches their mouth, face, or eyes, the virus can make them sick," says DHS.

Older people and those with underlying health conditions (heart disease, diabetes, lung disease) are considered at high risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Precautions are also needed around people with developing or weakened immune systems, including young children, pregnant women and certain medical patients.

To help prevent the spread of the virus:

  • Stay at least six feet away from other people.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay at home as much as possible. Cancel events and avoid groups, gatherings, play dates and nonessential appointments
  • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care
  • Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a mask. At a minimum, use a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Clean frequently-touched surfaces and objects daily (e.g., tables, countertops, light switches, doorknobs, and cabinet handles).
Complete statement from JBS
As provided to Action 2 News

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.

Preventive measures at the Green Bay facility include:

  • Temperature testing all team members prior to entering facilities;
  • Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks, which are required to be worn at all times;
  • Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, including plexiglass dividers in key areas;
  • Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day;
  • Hiring dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor;
  • Removing vulnerable populations from facilities, offering full pay and benefits;
  • Requiring sick team members to stay home from work; Waiving short-term disability waiting periods;
  • Relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick;
  • Providing free 100% preventative care to all team members enrolled in the company’s health plan;
  • Offering free LiveHealth Online services for team members enrolled in the company’s health plan that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost;
  • Educating and encouraging team members to practice social distancing at home and in the community outside of work; and
  • Restricting access to facilities and not allowing visitors.