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

Confirmed coronavirus cases among JBS employees stuck at 255 as company halts testing.

The massive coronavirus outbreak at Green Bay-area meat processing facilities shows no signs of stopping, but the company whose plant is tied to more than a third of Brown County’s cases has stopped testing its employees, a Brown County health official said Tuesday.

The alarming news came as Brown County surged past 900 confirmed cases on Tuesday, and a third resident died. Of the approximately 1,200 employees at JBS Packerland, at least 255 have coronavirus and 79 additional cases in the county have been linked back to the plant, according to county health strategist Claire Paprocki.

The number of confirmed cases among workers remained stagnant from Monday to Tuesday, but that may not be representative of the true scope of the outbreak.

“Since JBS shut down, I don’t believe they’re doing testing right now,” Paprocki said during a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. 

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not immediately respond to an email seeking confirmation, and whether the company will resume testing its employees.

JBS temporarily closed the plant last weekend after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into alleged failures to protect employees. The company was also facing intense media scrutiny and criticism from Gov. Tony Evers.

It is unclear how many of JBS’ Green Bay employees had been tested before the shutdown, or if the plant will resume testing. Paprocki said Brown County will not continue testing where JBS left off.

“We’re focused testing on not just one facility or the other, but the community as a whole,” Paprocki said. 

Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said DHS and the National Guard are attempting to contact the plant’s other employees as part of a broader testing effort in Brown County.

At American Foods Group, which has three locations in Green Bay, 145 employees have been infected, according to the county’s latest count. On Monday, 130 employees had confirmed cases. Seven more cases in the county have been linked to American Foods Group.

Salm Partners, which has 500 employees in the Village of Denmark, had 17 confirmed cases amongst its workforce on Monday. The county did not provide an updated figure on Tuesday and, and Paprocki said Brown County will no longer report the number of infected Salm workers. 

“That was a direct request from Salm,” Paprocki said.

Salm spokeswoman Mary Schmidt said the company is waiting on results from voluntary employee testing, and said Salm would deliver future numbers on its own. The company offered free testing and provided those who got tested with an extra hour of pay, according to the Salm website.

“We hope to have the full picture of testing either tomorrow or Thursday and will make a statement at that time with numbers,” Schmidt said. Not every employee was tested, she said.

Paprocki said if JBS and American Foods Group asked, the county would stop reporting their numbers as well. 

“As long as they would be willing to speak with you guys (reporters) and give you that information, then yes,” Paprocki said.

American Foods Group spokeswoman Jennifer Dibbern did not immediately respond to an email asking if the company planned to test each employee at the Green Bay locations.

All told, at least 503, or 55 percent, of Brown County’s 913 confirmed cases have been linked to the meatpacking plants. The county still refuses to say at what point it would step in and exercise its authority to force the plants to close. The City of Green Bay deferred questions about the outbreak to the county.

President Donald Trump is moving to sign an order forcing meat plants to stay open under the Defense Production Act, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. It is not clear if the order would supersede or be superseded by an active OSHA investigation.

Sending workers back to meatpacking plants as the COVID-19 infection count has continued to climb in recent days is unsafe for those employees and the food supply, said Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of AFL-CIO Wisconsin.

“If the workers aren’t safe, the public is not safe,” Bloomingdale said when asked about Trump’s order. “To willy nilly declare that meatpacking businesses have to be open, regardless of the situations at those locations, is dangerous and irresponsible.”

She criticized government officials for their failure to take COVID-19 more seriously early on, and for the continued lack of personal protective equipment for all essential employees, including those working at meatpacking sites. 

“Workers are not expendable, but our politicians are treating them like they are,” Bloomingdale said.