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

Now almost 300 of JBS Packerland’s 1,200 employees are COVID-positive

JBS on Thursday resumed testing employees at its Green Bay meatpacking facility where nearly a quarter of the workers have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a Brown County health official.

The company’s surprise turnaround came as the county’s cases surpassed 1,000 and a day after the county Health Department said it would not require the plant to finish testing its 1,200 employees.

JBS Packerland temporarily closed down its operations and stopped testing its employees Sunday.

Of the 1,049 confirmed coronavirus cases in Brown County, at least 594, or about 57 percent, are linked to three local meat facilities. The Green Bay metropolitan area on Wednesday had the second-fastest growing outbreak in the nation, according to a New York Times case tracker. It has since fallen to the 26th-fastest growing.

“Obviously it’s unfortunate that we had to find ourselves, Brown County specifically, in this situation,” said Claire Paprocki, a Brown County public health strategist, during a call with reporters on Thursday. “It was such a rapidly evolving virus from the beginning.”

Paprocki said the county expects cases to continue growing as more testing is performed.

The National Guard and state Department of Health Services are in town at the Resch Center to help testing efforts with an additional 2,500 tests. The National Guard is also testing at American Foods Group, another meatpacker. It is not at JBS, according to a National Guard spokesman.

Paprocki said the additional tests will be used primarily for employees at places like group homes, long-term care facilities, and health care facilities.

Gov. Tony Evers said on Wednesday the state considered it a priority to get Brown County’s meatpacking employees tested.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not respond Thursday to questions about why the company decided to resume testing, and whether it will test all employees before the plant reopens.

Bruett also did not say whether the plant — in the midst of a federal OSHA investigation — will reopen in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order forcing meatpacking plants to remain open, even as they become epicenters in the pandemic.

“Opening it up (would be) a huge mistake,” said Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay.

Despite multiple requests from UpNorthNews, JBS has not disclosed how many of its Green Bay employees have already been tested. As of Thursday, 290 workers were COVID-positive — up from 262 on Wednesday — and 58 other cases in Brown County were linked to the employees, according to the health department. On Wednesday, there were 86 linked cases; it is not clear what reduced that number.

JBS recently reopened a plant in Colorado where about 250 employees are infected and five have died. The company promised it would test all of the 6,000 employees there prior to reopening, but it did not do so.

Two other Brown County meatpacking plants have also become coronavirus hotspots. American Foods Group in Green Bay has 179 coronavirus-positive employees, up from 170 on Wednesday, according to the health department. Thirty-two other cases in the county are linked to American Foods.

American Foods Group has not responded to multiple requests for information on its outbreak, including how many employees it has in Green Bay and how many have been tested.  OSHA is also investigating American Foods.

Salm Partners in Denmark offered voluntary testing for all of its 600 employees and offered an extra hour of pay for those who got tested. Of the 346 employees who got tested, 35 have confirmed coronavirus cases, according to spokeswoman Mary Schmidt.

American Foods and Salm are still open. Before Trump’s order, the county could have temporarily shuttered the plants, but health officials opted to let them stay open.

Hansen said he hopes American Foods is careful as it continues operations, and that JBS provides protection for employees when it opens back up.

“They better take all the precautions in the world,” he said.

Employees at food processing plants across the state have alleged their companies did not adequately prepare for the outbreaks or protect workers. At a press conference hosted by advocacy group Voces de la Frontera on Wednesday, an American Foods employee said he was sent home after raising concerns about working conditions there.

“There is a lot of fear,” said the employee, Filiberto Reyes-Martinez. He said human resources has not told him when he can return to work.

He said the company would only provide one protective mask and one gown per shift. Because the production line has not slowed down, workers sweat through the mask and gown, and the sweat can end up on the food, Reyes-Martinez said.

Voces de la Frontera is working with employees at nine different food processors across the state, according to the organization’s executive director, Christine Neumann-Ortiz.

“If the workers are not well, the company is not well,” said Dora Flores, whose father is one of the JBS employees who caught coronavirus.

Wisconsin currently has 6,854 confirmed cases and 316 deaths, according to Thursday’s DHS figures. It was an increase of 334 new positive cases over Wednesday, the largest single-day jump of the outbreak.