Brown County reports 402 workers at meat plants in county are infected with COVID-19

Brown County health officials report 402 workers at meat plants in the county are infected with COVID-19, though the total number of cases linked to these outbreaks is still unknown.

The jump in cases comes amid increased testing and scrutiny of these meatpacking facilities. JBS Packerland Plant, which has the most positive tests at 255, has announced plans to temporarily close the Green Bay location. American Foods Group has 130 positive tests and Salm Partners in nearby Denmark has 17, but both remain open.

Officials from the CDC, state Department of Health Services and Brown County Public Health conducted walkthroughs of all three facilities last week. And Gov. Tony Evers reached out to Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach over the weekend to “offer support and to talk about how we can handle what’s happening,” according to Claire Paprocki, public health strategist for the county.

“We can’t attribute the spread solely to one facility in Brown County,” she said yesterday during a webinar. “Each facility that we have toured took the correct preventive measures, i.e. personal protective equipment was provided, social distancing was adhered.”

Still, she said the new cases being reported are attributable to both spread in the facilities and in the community. Monday’s numbers only cover infected employees, and Paprocki said more information on connected cases such as family members or roommates will be available soon.

The JBS Packerland Plant employs about 1,200 people, and is one of more than 60 JBS facilities spread across the country. Individual locations in other states have also had hundreds of positive cases of COVID-19.

“We’ve been focused on doing everything we can to keep the virus out of our facility, but we believe a temporary closure is the most aggressive action we can take to help our community collectively slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Shannon Grassl, president of the JBS USA Regional Beef.

The meat plants in Green Bay are among a handful of companies in Wisconsin under investigation by OSHA. Others include the Smithfield/Patrick Cudahy Plant in Cudahy, TNT Crust in Green Bay and Birds Eye Foods in Darien.

In response to a reporter’s question during the call, Paprocki declined to provide a baseline number of cases for any given facility that would lead to county officials shutting it down. 

“There’s not an exact number I can give you, or pinpoint,” she said. “We would continue to evaluate the situation.” 

She explained that JBS decided to close the Green Bay plant voluntarily, though she added that “we were there to support them, whatever decision they did make.” 

She added: “Obviously this week, we would have reevaluated and if we felt that closing them was something that would have been appropriate, we would have discussed that and put it on the table. But I don’t think it’s a matter of the county stepping in or not.” 

Brown County has 853 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the latest update from DHS. The county has a confirmed infection rate of about 328 cases per 100,000 people — the highest rate of any county in Wisconsin. By comparison, Milwaukee County has a rate of about 280 positive cases per 100,000 people. 

President Trump is expected to order meat plants across the country to stay open to preserve food supply chains, according to a report in the Washington Post.

See more county-level COVID-19 information: 

–By Alex Moe