SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A federal public health team has finalized safety recommendations needed to re-open the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, now linked to nearly 900 coronavirus cases, state officials said Monday, April 20.

The recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their implementation by the plant’s owner, will play a crucial role in plans to re-open the facility, one of the nation’s largest coronavirus hotspots.

They include: improved social distancing measures, expanded use of face shields and more personal protective equipment and improved communication with workers and their families, said Gov. Kristi Noem at a Monday press conference.

“My team is working with Smithfield to develop a series of measures that this plant can take in order to reopen,” Noem said. “We’re working to get that up and going as soon as possible, for the benefit of not just the employees there and their families, but also for the pork producers, the industry, the state of South Dakota and the nation’s food supply.”

She didn't directly answer a question about when the plant would re-open. The CDC assessment has yet to be posted on the state's COVID-19 information website, although Noem said it would be soon.

The Smithfield plant is responsible for about 5% of national pork production and buys thousands of hogs from hundreds of family pork farmers.

The Smithfield plant, deemed essential for the nation’s food supply by federal officials, has been closed since April 15 as testing revealed it as the epicenter of one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.

Noem on Monday issued an executive order temporarily freeing up pork producers from limits on the number of hogs that can be kept at their operations.

The move comes as another of the region’s largest meat plants, which take in hogs from farms around the area, said it will temporarily close its doors. JBS USA announced it would indefinitely close its pork processing plant in nearby Worthington, Minn., later this week.

Testing has revealed a growing COVID-19 outbreak among the facility's workers, with dozens of employees testing positive for the illness. The plant employs more than 2,000 people.

Caution over fewer daily cases

Of the Smithfield plant’s 3,700-strong workforce, 748 workers have tested positive for COVID-19, while 143 people with close contact with those workers have also tested positive, the state Department of Health said Monday. One worker has died due to the coronavirus.

While the daily number of new cases seems to have slowed, state epidemiologist Dr. Josh Clayton cautioned making any assumptions about the short-term trend, as he discussed daily test results in a Monday morning media call.

"A single day is a single fluctuation," he said. "What we would need is several days for us that would provide any sort of idea of what our overall trajectory is."

The COVID-19 cases linked to the Smithfield plant now number 1,685. There are 1,500 cases in just Minnehaha and Lincoln counties, which contain Sioux Falls, or nearly 90% of the state's total.

But Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken called recent testing results among the Smithfield workforce and close contacts a relatively positive development, saying the Smithfield outbreak is on the "downslope."

"Now we're just seeing community spread in all the other areas and other businesses and other organizations," he said.

TenHaken said he would announce on Tuesday, April 21, the creation of an organization to help local large employers screen their workers and make changes to curb the spread of the virus.

But he said he planned to kill a proposed stay home order under consideration by the Sioux Falls City Council, saying new modeling showed it wouldn't be necessary to help local hospitals keep up with an expected mid-May surge of cases.

The virus has sent 87 South Dakotans to the hospital and killed seven. State officials say 709 of those known to be infected with COVID-19 have recovered.

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