Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that no Jennie-O Turkey Store employee with a confirmed positive COVID-19 test has yet returned from quarantine.
WILLMAR — The situation is changing quickly at Jennie-O Turkey Store's Willmar Avenue plant, where cases of COVID-19 were confirmed earlier this week.
In a brief phone call at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jennie-O President Steve Lykken said the company is reviewing new information and is now considering a possible “pause” in the operations of the plant, one of the company's two turkey processing plants in Willmar. Jennie-O operates seven total processing plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Lykken said the decision would be made “within the next 8 to 12 hours,” which means an announcement could be made early Friday.
If a decision is reached to temporarily stop production, he said it would be done “out of an abundance of caution.”
In an interview earlier in the day with the West Central Tribune, Lykken discussed the number of confirmed cases at the Willmar plant, the precautionary steps the company was taking to test all affected workers for coronavirus and said that the plant was still operating.
At that time, Lykken said Jennie-O is an “economic engine” in the community and that it would “hurt a lot of people if we shut down.” He said shutting down meat processing facilities will affect the supply of food in grocery stores.
The fact that, just a few hours later, Lykken said the company would now consider a pause in production indicates how fluid the situation is with testing for the coronavirus and how businesses respond to the rapidly changing information.
On Tuesday, Jennie-O officials confirmed an unspecified number of employees had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Willmar Avenue plant.
Saying "the situations in our communities are changing daily," the company had been reluctant to share the exact number of coronavirus cases among employees, which had led to speculation on social media and unconfirmed reports of positive cases at Jennie-O in Willmar ranging anywhere from 18 to 30, or more.
When asked about that during an initial interview Thursday, Lykken said there were fewer than a dozen confirmed cases at that time, and with 1,200 employees at the Willmar Avenue plant, he said that represented less than 1% of the workforce there.
He said the number of confirmed cases was increasing, but said that was happening because the company is testing all affected individuals, which he said goes above and beyond what is required by health officials.
Lykken said, for example, an employee who tests positive for coronavirus and sits with three people at lunch, carpools with several others and has roommates creates the need for multiple tests.
He said for every Jennie-O employee who tests positive, there may be anywhere from 10-13 affected people who are also being tested and quarantined.
“That’s going to run the numbers up,” he said.
Lykken said the company should not be “vilified” for doing the right thing by testing people.
During the daily news conference on the state's response to COVID-19, Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday said meatpacking facilities were “things we were worried about.”
In response to those concerns and the temporary shutdown of two pork processing facilities in Minnesota, the state on Monday issued guidelines specifically for facilities that process meat.
Also during the Thursday news conference, Nancy Leppink, Commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, was asked about the cases at Jennie-O.
Her response was more general and addressed concerns about all meat processing plants and actions the state has taken to provide facilities with the new guidelines.
Leppink said a major issue is balancing the health of the workers and keeping the plants open.
“This is an industry that’s in a kind of a pressure point, because they are a critical business,” Leppink said. “They are meeting the needs of farmers who need their hogs and their chickens and their turkeys processed.”
She said it’s clear that processing facilities cannot operate at the same capacity they were before being hit with COVID-19.
She said work lines need to be slowed down, shifts need to be sequenced, more transition time is needed in between breaks, and health testing of employees before they come to work — like taking temperatures — can help reduce the spread of coronavirus.
She said businesses have also been encouraged to change their pay policies so workers are encouraged to stay home when ill rather than working when they shouldn’t.
According to a previous company statement, Jennie-O had already implemented the state guidelines and incentives.
Lykken said requesting the tests for COVID-19 is part of the company’s commitment to take care of employees for the long term. Employees who are quarantined are being paid their full salary and benefits for the entire 14 days, he said.
Lykken said additional steps are being taken to sanitize the Jennie-O facilities.
He said he’s grateful for the “hardworking” Jennie-O employees. “They’re doing important work,” he said.
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