Why You Don’t Know About The COVID Outbreak At Your Local Grocery Store
Brown County Public Health Officer Anna Destree, left, and Public Health Strategist Claire Paprocki sit close to one another during a May press conference. Brown County's health department stopped releasing information on the massive outbreaks there, and the state Department of Health Services in July backed away from plans to name businesses and facilities experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks after intense backlash from business lobbies.

Officials say they’ll let companies disclose workplace stats. The companies are saying ‘no.’

News of greatly increased testing in Brown County was soured Monday by the county announcing it would no longer release updated numbers on positive coronavirus cases in food processing facilities.

The stunning announcement came after the total number of cases linked to the facilities surpassed 600. Instead of providing the customary daily updates, the Health Department will now leave it up to each individual company — JBS, American Foods Group, Salm Partners, and more — to release the numbers, said Claire Paprocki, public health strategist.

Sifting through data and providing those updates on a daily basis is too time-consuming for county staff, Paprocki claimed. She insisted the companies will be transparent.

“I talked to JBS this morning,” Paprocki said Monday. “They’d be happy to provide those numbers for you, as well as Salm Partners, and AFG, as well.”

Spokespeople at JBS and AFG did not respond Monday to a request for updated employee infection numbers. JBS last had 290 COVID-positive employees, and AFG had 203. Employees of both companies were specifically targeted for testing last Friday after the state sent the National Guard in to bolster testing efforts, so the numbers almost certainly grew after results of those tests came in.

Salm Partners did provide the numbers when asked. Cases grew from 36 to 38 over the weekend, according to spokeswoman Mary Schmidt.

Two other Guard-targeted companies, Saputo Cheese, and Hansen Foods, did not provide numbers. A Saputo spokesperson said in a statement that “several employees” had tested positive for coronavirus, but did not provide an exact number when asked. Hansen Foods declined to comment on Friday, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“If they’re declining to comment at this time, that would be up to each individual facility to choose not to do,” Paprocki said. “Hopefully soon, maybe they’re gathering information, or getting their numbers together to make sure they’re providing accurate data. I would hope that, at least some point in the near future, they would be willing to make some kind of statement.”

Paprocki said the county would not release the information with any sense of urgency if companies continue to decline to comment. That is a reversal from last week, when she said the county would only stop reporting the food plant numbers if the companies agreed to provide reporters with updates.

“When this is all said and done, and we can say that we’ve successfully combated COVID, we can definitely give those types of numbers and get the minute details that you’re asking for,” she said. 

It is practically guaranteed that it will be months, if not years, before the nation is in a position to say the virus has been successfully stymied.

Brown County’s coronavirus outbreak continues to grow. The county currently has 1,441 cases and six deaths, according to figures released Monday.