Meatpacker won’t share the true scope of the massive outbreak, and now Brown County won’t either.
Meatpacking company JBS Packerland has reopened its Green Bay plant after about a quarter of its 1,200 employees tested positive for coronavirus — and the public will apparently not be told the true scope of the massive outbreak any time soon, as both the company and county are refusing to release new information.
The plant had been closed since April 26 as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigated allegations that JBS did not adequately protect workers from the pandemic. The reopening came the day after Brown County’s Health Department announced it would no longer release infection numbers for JBS or any of the numerous other food processing facilities experiencing outbreaks in the county.
As of last Friday when the final numbers were reported, more than 600 coronavirus cases in Brown County were linked to just three food processing facilities, and more than 330 were linked to JBS alone. Of those, 290 were JBS employees. Another 203 cases were among employees of American Foods Group in Green Bay.
That number has almost certainly grown, as JBS and American Foods were two of several employers whose workforce was specifically targeted for testing by the National Guard last week. But JBS said it will not release numbers, despite public assurances from the county that “they’d be happy to provide those numbers.” American Foods has not responded to any requests for comment from UpNorthNews dating back weeks.
“We are not releasing numbers per company policy,” JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said.
He did not specify what company policy prevented the release of infection data, nor why numbers were previously released despite the policy he claimed was in place.
“The county released numbers,” was his only response. He did not respond when asked if JBS was continuing to update the county.
JBS Packerland reopened with reduced staff on Tuesday, Bruett said. He also said all employees must be tested before returning to work, a promise the company broke at a Colorado plant late last month. It did not appear as if JBS would test all its employees in Green Bay until the state stepped in when the county said it would not force the company to complete testing.
Brown County Public Health Strategist Claire Paprocki said county and Centers for Disease Control health staff did a walkthrough of JBS Packerland on Monday in advance of its reopening and “were very pleased with what they saw.”
In a press call Tuesday, Brown County’s Health Department showed no signs of budging on its new no-reporting policy, even if JBS and other companies continue to hide the numbers.
“They’re private-sector facilities, so they can do what they choose,” Paprocki said Tuesday. Last week, she said the county would only stop reporting data if the companies agreed to provide it.
The county itself was previously aggregating daily case updates rather than relying on companies to report the data, Paprocki said.
She claimed continuing to aggregate the data would be “a very manual process” deemed too time-consuming because staff would need to go through a spreadsheet and manually pick out which cases are linked to each facility every day.
Paprocki did not directly answer whether staff could simply add new daily cases to existing totals.
“It (the data) is not something that we don’t have,” she said. “We’re focused on testing and coordinating additional resources to get care to folks that are sick in Brown County, and then additionally making sure that we’re mitigating the spread.”
Mary Schmidt, a spokeswoman for Salm Partners in the Village of Denmark, which has remained transparent throughout the process, said the company has provided daily updates to the county. Salm had 45 confirmed cases out of 600 employees as of Tuesday and had implemented a mandatory testing requirement for workers, she said.
Schmidt also said Salm will stop releasing daily numbers because no other company is reporting them, but she added that the company would provide the data in the future if asked.
There were 1,545 confirmed coronavirus cases in Brown County as of Tuesday, according to figures released Tuesday. Deaths nearly doubled overnight, jumping from six to 11. The entire state had 8,566 cases and 353 deaths, according to the Department of Health Services.
As part of Brown County’s community testing effort, anyone who works or lives in the county can now get a free test at both the west side Resch Center and east side Casa ALBA Melanie in Green Bay. More information on that testing program is available here.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 non-county residents work in Brown County, meaning about 300,000 people are eligible if they are showing symptoms.