WORTHINGTON — Any doubt that COVID-19 was circulating in Worthington and the surrounding area has now been erased.

During a Friday afternoon press conference led by Gov. Tim Walz, it was reported there are more than 30 positive cases of the novel coronavirus in Nobles County, and many of those are associated with the JBS pork processing facility in Worthington.

The number of positive cases initially jumped Thursday night, when Nobles County’s Public Information Officer Tom Johnson issued a press release stating they were notified of 16 new cases in the county by the Minnesota Department of Health.

The news came hours after about a dozen workers at JBS walked off the job over safety concerns at the facility. A Friday press release from the union that represents a majority of the plant’s employees stated 19 cases of COVID-19 had been identified at the plant.

“Production line speeds inside JBS and other food processing plants in Minnesota must be immediately slowed to make safe social distancing between workers possible,” United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663 President Matt Utecht said. Allowing six feet between workers is the best and most proven way to flatten the curve of COVID-19 and must be implemented by JBS and other companies without delay.

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“Failure to make this critical safety improvement will put our community and our nation’s food supply at devastating risk.”

During Friday’s statewide press conference, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm announced more than 30 new cases of COVID-19 in the county.

Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said he’d spoken with Walz prior to the televised update.

“A couple of the comments he said were ‘we want to nip this in the bud’ and ‘we want to make this the model for how we attack coronavirus at a processing plant,’” Kuhle shared.

Area numbers

As of Friday afternoon, a clear count of the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Nobles County remained unclear.

Johnson said Thursday night that complexity of the testing and the chain of communication resulted in no new confirmed cases within the county for several days, despite rumors to the contrary.

“We know the range in age is from 28 to 80 years old,” Johnson shared of the 16 new cases announced Thursday night. “(We) have no additional detail to share at this time.”

On Friday, the number of cases reported in neighboring counties were: Cottonwood: 6; Jackson: 1; Murray: 2; Pipestone: 1; Rock: 3; Lyon County, Iowa: 5; Osceola County, Iowa: 2; and Dickinson County, Iowa: 1. Some of these individuals have already completed the mandatory isolation period.

Statewide across Minnesota, 2,071 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 1,066 no longer need to be isolated. There are 233 individuals hospitalized, including 106 in the intensive care unit. Thus far, 111 deaths due to COVID-19 have been reported.

“The fact is, we are not a set of numbers,” Johnson said. “All these people are someone’s neighbor or friend or family, and this pandemic will affect us all in some way. This is a time when we must pull together by staying apart as much as reasonable.

Drive-through testing now available

Sanford Worthington Medical Center Executive Director Jennifer Weg confirmed Friday morning that positive COVID-19 tests results have come through that facility. She was unable to disclose specific patient data.

Sanford Health also began offering drive-through testing for COVID-19 on Friday at a centralized location in Worthington. Testing is now available for those who are experiencing symptoms and have been exposed to a known COVID-19 patient. Depending on volume, test results are generally available within 24-48 hours.

The testing is clearly marked by signage but is separate from the clinic — allowing for the clinic to remain open and safe for other routine medical needs. Those needing a test must call their Sanford physician for exact instructions on how to proceed; Sanford Worthington Clinic’s number is 372-3800. Anyone without a referral for testing from a provider will be turned away from the centralized testing location.

“This is kind of the expected normal progression of coronavirus,” said Weg, who also expressed gratitude for efforts made within the community to help keep the virus from spreading. “The testing has increased, and the positive tests have increased. … We’re ready to meet people’s needs.”

Sanford Health has the capacity to process approximately 500 tests per day, its press release added. The drive-through testing offers convenience for individuals and preserves PPE, Weg said.

JBS walkout

Hirpho Koji, a forklift operator at the Worthington pork processing plant, explained that during his shift Thursday, management called a meeting and announced that a JBS employee had tested positive for COVID-19.

Although JBS is taking a number of safety precautions, Koji and few others were frightened by the news that the virus could be circulating among them undetected.

“They’re trying their best to help, like cleaning and hand sanitizing, but it’s not enough,” Koji said, adding that a group requested management shut down production for a while, but was told that would not happen.

“Their answer was, ‘Get back to work or leave the property,’” he said. So Koji and about 10 others walked off the job.

“I left my job because it’s not safe; it’s too crowded,” he said. “I was thinking about my kids.”

JBS USA Head of Corporate Affairs Cameron Bruett confirmed Friday that the company has had a few employees at its plants nationwide test positive for COVID-19, but would not name specific locations, citing respect for the families. He described the conflict Thursday as 30 employees leaving work but then returning later in the day, although Koji said he did not go back to his job.

“No one is forced to come to work, and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” Bruett said. “If someone is sick or lives with someone who is sick, we send them home.”

Rapid response team

Kuhle said Friday that a rapid response team was arriving in Worthington Friday afternoon as a result of the surge in COVID-19 cases.

“There’s going to be a state epidemiologist as well as four or five others,” Kuhle said. “They’re going to be working both sides — working on the medical side of it and also at the plant, helping them identify even better practices than what they’re already doing.

“The governor told me that from what he’d heard, they (JBS) is doing everything possible, but hopefully we can add on to that.”

Kuhle also said he was contacted Friday by U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.

“She’s genuinely concerned about Worthington and also was offering any help that her office and her staff can offer to us,” he said,

Kuhle added later Friday afternoon that the health of Worthington's residents is the city’s top priority.

“While JBS and the agricultural industry at large are critical to providing food locally and globally, it is the health of individual essential workers that is of top concern at this very moment when positive cases of COVID-19 are being reported throughout our community,” he said.

“Worthington's residents are what make our community strong. We will get through this together.”

Staying safe

Johnson said far too many people are falling short in the request for social distancing in Nobles County, and he and public health officials urge people to self-quarantine if they have any COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough or shortness of breath) or have been exposed to the virus in any way. People are urged to call their doctor or nearest clinic if they are unsure what to do.

“We understand that making temporary sacrifices is difficult,” Johnson said. “But doing so can mean the difference between life and death for the people of our community, and not just those at highest risk.”

For more information about COVID-19, people can visit the Minnesota Department of Health dashboard at: https://bit.ly/3a0csb8.

Locally, people may follow the Nobles County Community Services Facebook page for updates and information. The Nobles County COVID-19 Hotline is 295-5100 and is currently staffed from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday to answer questions.

People are asked to distance themselves from others by avoiding public places and only getting essential items or to report to work if your job is deemed essential.

All public gatherings, including family get-togethers, should be avoided; and people should stay six feet away from anyone with whom you do not live.

Additional important strategies to prevent transmission:

  • Frequently wash your hands with warm soapy water, each time for at least 20 seconds.

  • Wipe down any ‘high touchpoint’ surfaces, such as door handles, cell phones, keys, pens, water bottles, coffee cups, etc. with an appropriate disinfectant.

  • Don’t touch your face.

  • Cover your coughs/sneezes

  • Find a few positive things every day to be grateful for, studies have shown it can strengthen your immune system.

  • Be active, get out and walk, exercise or bike. Physical activity also strengthens your immune system. Please do it safely and again, respect social distancing.

  • If you know someone who is homebound, call them and see what they need. The county has numerous volunteers ready to assist with those needs safely.