The Seneca Foods vegetable processing plant in Cumberland as seen in a 2014 aerial photo on the plant's Facebook page where work shifts are posted daily in English and Spanish.
The Seneca Foods vegetable processing plant in Cumberland as seen in a 2014 aerial photo on the plant's Facebook page where work shifts are posted daily in English and Spanish.

Barron County outbreak blamed on a vegetable processing plant and social gatherings.

An outbreak of 73 new cases of COVID-19, at least some of which have been detected at a Cumberland food processing business, were reported in Barron County Wednesday. 

The Barron County Department of Health and Human Services said some of the new cases of the virus were detected among workers at the Seneca Foods processing plant. Officials with the county and the company are working to identify employees who tested positive for COVID-19 or exhibit symptoms of the illness, and are isolating them from others as quickly as possible, they said. 

“We are taking a united approach to this response by identifying people who are positive or symptomatic as quickly as possible and ensuring that they get the care they need,” said Matt Henschler, a Seneca Foods official. 

Seneca Foods processes fruits and vegetables, and the Cumberland site, one of 11 the company has in Wisconsin, packages mostly green beans.

Barron County Health Officer Laura Sauve did not reveal how many of the 73 cases were detected at Seneca Foods, saying her department has been unable to determine that total amid tracking the surge of new cases. Other virus cases, she said, have been traced to people attending gatherings or traveling to various locations.   

Wednesday’s 73 COVID-19 cases in Barron County represent the largest one-day increase of the virus in northwest Wisconsin since the state began tracking the virus in March. Those cases are the latest in a spike of the virus in Barron County, which has seen 150 new cases during the past two weeks.

Many of the new cases have been in the Rice Lake and Cumberland areas, Sauve said.

“It is important to know this (outbreak at Seneca Foods) is not the only cause for the increase in cases. The large spike cannot be connected to one location or single event,” Sauve said in a health department Facebook post about Wednesday’s outbreak. “We need people to understand that no place is risk free.”

Sauve said Seneca “did a good job” following recommendations to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Frequent testing, some conducted by the Wisconsin National Guard, occurred to try to stay on top of the virus, she said. The company also required face masks and implemented social distancing measures, she said. 

“This situation shows just how quickly the virus can spread,” she said. 

Sauve urged people to wear face masks in public and to adhere to social distancing measures stipulating that people remain at least six feet from each other. Attending gatherings of people such as graduation parties, especially those indoors, are discouraged, she said.  

County health department figures show of the county’s 206 total COVID-19 cases, 127 are currently isolating, and six are hospitalized, including several in intensive care units. Three county residents have died from the virus, including one reported on Monday. 

Food processing plants have been the source of multiple COVID-19 outbreaks. Plants in the Milwaukee area and Green Bay have been the sites of hundreds of cases of the virus, in large part because employees often work in close proximity to each other. 

In some cases, workers at those plants reported a lack of personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the virus, and some employees said they were told to work even if they showed symptoms of the illness. 

COVID-19 cases have risen dramatically across Wisconsin during the past two months and have topped 1,000 new cases daily during several recent days. As of Wednesday, the state Department of Health Services reported 51,049 positive cases of the virus and 911 deaths.

Milwaukee, Dane and Brown County remain COVID-19 hotspots, but the virus has made inroads across Wisconsin, with 61 of the state’s 72 counties currently determined to be at a high activity level of the virus. In Chippewa County, health department Director Angela Weideman said Wednesday the county has recorded 100 new cases of the virus in the past three weeks after taking the three previous months to record its first 100 cases.

“Doubling that number in just three weeks is concerning,” she said.