Cases of COVID-19 confirmed at Jennie-O plant in Willmar
Officials from Jennie-O Turkey Store confirmed Tuesday that an unspecified number of employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at one of its plants in Willmar. The plant continues to operate. Kandiyohi County health officials expect the number of cases to rise but praised the measures Jennie-O has implemented to help prevent the spread of the illness caused by the coronavirus.
WILLMAR — Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar confirmed Tuesday evening that an unspecified number of employees have tested positive for coronavirus at their turkey processing plant on Willmar Avenue.
An emailed statement indicates the exact number of individual cases is not being reported “as we have found that the situations in our communities are changing daily.”
The statement said the company will be “transparent and report any possible closures of facilities due to deep cleaning or staffing issues that may be caused by COVID-19,” but at this time their production facilities are operating with minimal disruption to their supply chain.
Confirmation of the COVID-19 cases at Jennie-O follows the closures of two Minnesota pork processing facilities, where a number of employees have tested positive for coronavirus.
The state on Monday issued COVID-19 guidance for the meatpacking industry aimed at worker safety and keeping plants open. Commissioner Nancy Leppink, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said in the announcement that meatpackers are "a critical source for our food supply," and also have been "hot spots across the country for COVID-19 transmission."
There had been rumors circulating in the Willmar community and on social media that there were cases at Jennie-O, which employs about 1,000 people in Willmar at two processing plants and the corporate offices.
The West Central Tribune had sought comments both on Monday and Tuesday from Jennie-O regarding those rumors. A statement was emailed Tuesday evening from parent company Hormel Foods Corporation , based in Austin, Minn.
Jennie Lippert, director of Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services, said the presence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Jennie-O will undoubtedly mean an increase in testing and new cases in Kandiyohi County.
The mere size of the company and the number of families affected in the community will “probably lead to more confirmed cases in our county,” Lippert said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening. “We’re likely to see our numbers rise.”
According to Minnesota Department of Health data , Kandiyohi County reported just its third positive case on Monday, which was unchanged Tuesday. The county-by-county data confirm the county of residence after the department has completed a case interview.
Lippert said Kandiyohi County has been in direct contact with Jennie-O, as well as the Minnesota Department of Health, which is taking the lead in the investigation process of the cases, including interviewing affected employees and tracing their contacts.
She said the county Public Health Department is ready to “step in where needed” if the state becomes overwhelmed with the process.
“We have a lot of different communication channels,” Lippert said. “We’ll stay on top of this.”
According to the company statement, Jennie-O is “doing what’s right” in response to employees affected by COVID-19, including quarantining and identifying close contacts of affected employees and making sure those contacts are also quarantined.
Affected employees will continue to receive 100% of pay and benefits while they are away from work, according to the statement, which also said information about the situation is being communicated to employees, including translating communications into multiple languages.
The company said the “health and well-being of our team members is our highest priority,” and as the global pandemic evolves, “we know it is top of mind for our team members, customers, consumers, partners and communities.”
Jennie-O Turkey Store is comprised of 12 lay farms, three hatcheries, more than 100 commercial growing farms, eight feed mills and seven processing plants across Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to an online company profile , and employs more than 7,000 in total. Two processing plants are located in Willmar. Others are in Faribault, Melrose, Montevideo and Pelican Rapids in Minnesota and one in Barron, Wisconsin.
Lippert had high praise for Jennie-O’s precautionary measures that have been implemented in an effort to prevent future transmission of the coronavirus. “We are lucky that they have taken the added steps,” she said.
The company said it has implemented “enhanced operating protocols” during the pandemic including education for team members on the COVID-19 virus, taking team members’ temperatures daily, using masks or personal protective face coverings, having on-site nurses who can answer questions and helping employees get access to local testing for COVID-19.
The company has also increased sanitization frequency, updated policies and restrictions for visitors and business travel and expanded remote work options for team members where applicable, according to the statement.
Lippert said having cases confirmed at such a large Willmar employer as Jennie-O creates a new kind of ballgame for the community and should serve as a good reminder to follow guidelines for staying home, social distancing and washing hands.
She had a special word of advice about face masks.
Lippert encouraged people to wear them, especially when out in places where social distancing is difficult — like grocery stores. But she said people should not be mistaken about the purpose of face masks: They’re not designed to prevent the wearer from getting sick, she said, but to prevent other people from getting sick from your germs.
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