The JBS Packerland meat processing facility in Green Bay, WI
The JBS Packerland meat processing facility in Green Bay. (Photo by Hannah Slye)

Evers comments as cases double in Brown County after outbreaks at three processing plants.

Even as Brown County health officials shrug off taking action on a massive outbreak at three Green Bay-area meat packing facilities, nearly 270 coronavirus cases have been tied to the plants since Easter.

Those cases account for more than half of the county’s total number of infections, which soared past 500 on Thursday after more than 100 new cases were confirmed in one day. The exponential increase surpasses the rate of every other county in the state. Statewide, cases surpassed 5,000 on Thursday, according to data from the Department of Health Services.

More than 240 of those cases are in Green Bay at the city’s JBS and American Foods Group facilities, and 23 are at Salm Partners in the Village of Denmark. The cases include both employees and employees’ families.

Although JBS and American Foods allegedly have dangerous working conditions, the county health department has no plans to close the plants, an official said Thursday. Gov. Tony Evers, in a Thursday call with reporters, acknowledged the reported issues and indicated the state was monitoring the outbreaks.

“Hell yes, that’s a concern,” Evers said.

Two employees at JBS, which has been linked to 189 cases, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that JBS was slow to respond to the outbreak and did not provide adequate protections. Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group, filed OSHA complaints on behalf of workers at JBS and American Foods.

“Basically, it’s Russian Roulette,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera. 

Voces de la Frontera held a press conference this week with those impacted by the outbreak in the meat facilities.

“Everybody in my house is sick,” said Dora Flores, a Latina Green Bay resident who participated in the conference and whose father works at JBS and has coronavirus.

Green Bay Chief of Staff Celestine Jeffreys deferred questions about the outbreak to county health officials. County officials defended the factories and said the county currently has no plans to order the plants to shut down, even though it has the authority.

“We’re not talking about closing any of the plants,” Claire Paprocki, a Brown County public health strategist, said in a call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

County staff this week toured both American Foods and JBS, Paprocki said. Neither appear to pose a significant public-health risk despite the outbreaks, Paprocki claimed. JBS now has staggered breaks, plexiglass between workers, and tape on the floors to ensure employees are socially distant, but Paprocki did not know when those were implemented.

She said the outbreak is not a result of companies’ alleged failure to protect workers. Most of it has been a result of community spread, Paprocki claimed. She also said it does not appear to be a result of a language barrier. Materials were not distributed in Spanish, but Latino workers make up a significant portion of the meatpacking workforce.

“Latino and black workers are disproportionately part of low-wage industry,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “…Their contributions are undervalued, and I think it’s clear from what we’re seeing.”

Although it is likely the outbreak is disproportionately affecting Latino residents who work in the plants, there is no proof. Paprocki said the county is not actively tracking the ethnicity of infected patients and indiciated it has no plans to do so. 

“I’m going to punt that question to DHS,” Paprocki said. “At this point, we’re more focusing on community spread.”

Milwaukee County has been tracking patients’ race for most of the pandemic, a practice that has helped highlight harsh health care disparities facing the black community there.

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

“The health and safety of our team members remains our number one priority,” the company said Thursday in a statement to UpNorthNews. “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.”

JBS said it is taking additional precautions including staggering shifts, installing plexiglass “in key areas,” relaxing attendance policies, and “removing vulnerable populations” from its facilities while providing full pay and benefits. 

The company did not address a question about whether it felt it had done enough to prevent an outbreak.

When asked if the state would consider shuttering the plants, Evers deferred to DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm and Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer. Neither gave a clear answer.