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JBS, state officials comment on closure of Worthington plant

WORTHINGTON — Employees and community members voiced concerns last week about the novel coronavirus circulating among JBS Worthington employees, and the state of Minnesota sent a team from the departments of health, agriculture and labor and industry to evaluate the virus’s spread at the processing plant. On Monday morning, JBS USA announced that the company will close its Worthington location indefinitely to allow for employee testing, facility cleaning and the formation of a plan to re-open in a safe way. Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said in a press briefing Monday that when a particular area shows a spike in cases of COVID-19, disease investigators interview patients who have tested positive to try to identify where they may have contracted the virus and who else may have come in contact with it. As MDH was doing these interviews in Nobles County last week, “we fairly quickly spotted a strong link to the JBS plant,” Malcolm said. Tracing the virus through the JBS workforce has not been easy, she continued. More than 40 languages are spoken in the Worthington facility, and a significant number of the employees are fairly transient in terms of their housing. Some don’t even have a phone, she added. Of the first 41 coronavirus patients interviewed in Nobles County, 33 were JBS employees, and six were family members of JBS employees. “We don’t make this decision lightly,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork, in a press release. “We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day.” Commissioner of Labor and Industry Nancy Leppink added Monday that the state plans to use the JBS plant as a model in designing a plan for all Minnesota’s packing plants to comply with CDC guidelines. Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen explained that for now, there is not a shortage of meat, based on what JBS and other processors previously packaged. However, the state will continue to monitor the situation in the coming weeks. Pork is safe to eat, he clarified. Coronavirus is not transmitted through food, so consumers do not need to worry about JBS employees potentially passing the disease to JBS products. “We want to make sure Minnesotans have a safe, affordable and accessible food supply,” Petersen said. While the decision to close came from corporate management at JBS USA, not from state sanction, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz reiterated during his Monday COVID-19 briefing that the state is keeping an eye on the plant’s status, and is working with management to help the facility reopen safely as soon as possible. “The state of Minnesota didn’t shut down JBS.," Walz said. "JBS's leadership didn’t shut down JBS. The virus shut down JBS.” Walz noted that although JBS took a number of safety precautions, the close quarters and high volume of people made it practically inevitable that coronavirus would spread quickly through JBS ranks. JBS USA explained that the Worthington pork facility will wind down operations over the next two days. Management will encourage employees to comply with the governor’s stay-at-home order. For the duration of the plant closure, JBS USA will pay the employees. “We have taken aggressive actions to keep coronavirus out of our plant and keep this critical infrastructure facility operational,” Krebs said. “It is our hope that Gov. Walz’s effort to implement more widespread community testing will help all of us better understand the measures we must all take to stop its potential spread. "We must work together to defeat this common enemy."

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A tent at which JBS employees are required to proceed through for medical evaluations prior to entering the pork processing plant facility is shown Monday afternoon in Worthington. It was announced Monday morning by JBS USA that the Worthington plant would be closing indefinitely due to the spread of COVID-19. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)
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