Salm Partners meatpacking plant in Brown County, WI, is one of three processing plants in the county with employees testing positive for COVID-19.
Receiving area at the Salm Partners meatpacking plant in Denmark, WI (Photo by Hannah Slye)

Three Brown County facilities see positive cases. Close quarters and a lack of English language instructions played a role.

An increase of roughly 120 cases of positive coronavirus patients in Brown County since Friday has been traced to the JBS meat processing plant in Green Bay, with staff from the Centers for Disease Control arriving in Green Bay Monday morning to assist in containing a surge of cases at the plant and surrounding community. 

“There is a clustered uptick in and around the JBS plant in Green Bay with other companies in the industry showing an increase in confirmed cases as well,” said Ted Shove, the spokesman for the Brown County Health Department. “We are currently working with JBS and they are going to begin ramping up employee testing.”

The JBS plant is located on Lime Kiln Road. American Food Group and Salm Partner, located in Denmark, are the other two companies in the meat processing industry that have employees testing positive for the virus, but “nowhere near the number as JBS,” Shove said.

Shove said the number of positive cases in the county is 292, an increase of 119 since Friday. Shove said he was not able to say what percentage of those cases could be traced to the JBS plant. The company employs more than 1,200 employees.

A testing site will be set up at the JBS plant, with employees being given the option of being tested, Shove said. 

“That number will probably go up when test results come back,” he said of the 292 positive cases in Brown County.

The outbreak of COVID-19 at the JBS plant in Green Bay is not the first time an outbreak has occurred at one of the company’s beef processing plants. 

JBS already has closed two processing plants due to coronavirus outbreaks. A plant with 6,000 employees in Greeley, Colo., was closed April 14 and is not expected to reopen until April 24, according to a release from the company. A JBS beef-processing plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania also was closed around that same time for two weeks. 

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services said the watch word going forward is “containment.” The task at hand at the JBS plant is to contain the surge, he said. 

Andrea Palm, secretary of the state health department, said the state sent 22,000 tests to providers on the ground to do a “surge testing operation” in order to get a positive handle on the cases. Without any contact tracers to spare, Palm said she contacted the Centers for Disease Control to assist with the outbreak.

Contact tracing is a process that requires interviewing people who test positive and tracing back where they have been and with whom they have been in contact in previous days. 

Those who may have been in close proximity are then contacted by the tracers and told they have been in contact with an individual who tested positive for the virus. 

Shove said the working conditions at JBS are such that employees often work close together for an entire shift – not the recommended 6 feet of distance between them – and the lunchroom is a small area as well. He said the company is now staggering lunch periods and breaks and has put tape on the floor as visual reminders to maintain social distancing. 

He said the messaging about social distancing, proper hand hygiene and how to clean surfaces at home are not reaching the non-English speaking employees. 

 “We are going to increase messaging to those who speak languages other than English in Brown County,” Shove said. “I think that will help get the message out about social distancing, sanitizing in the home.”

Voces de La Frontera, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group, said two employees, a father who works at JBS Packing and his son who works at American Foods, have tested positive for the virus. 

The outbreak at food processing plants in Brown County is the state’s latest. The Birds Eye food processing plant in Walworth County reported 20 employees tested positive over the weekend, prompting company officials to suspend operations until April 27. 

The Patrick Cudahy-Smithfield plant in Milwaukee County announced April 15 it would be closing for two weeks following an outbreak of the virus among its employees. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The Patrick Cudahy-Smithfield plant in Milwaukee County announced April 15 it would be closing for two weeks following an outbreak of the virus among its employees. 

In terms of an ordered closure of the plant, Shove said the health department has not reached that point yet. 

“We are pretty early on in the investigation,” he said.