California chicken plant temporarily closes after 8 die, nearly 400 test positive for COVID-19

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Foster Farms is set to temporarily close its main poultry processing plant in Livingston, Calif., on Tuesday night following an outbreak that led to nearly 400 coronavirus infections and accounted for eight deaths.

The Livingston-based company said in a statement over the weekend that it would not resume operations until Sept. 7. During the week-long closure, two rounds of COVID-19 testing will be conducted for the plant’s 1,400 employees. Two rounds of deep cleaning will also be performed at the facility, the company said. 

The announcement followed discussions between Foster Farms and the Merced County Department of Public Health, which originally declared an outbreak at the Livingston facility in late June. Health officials from the county said in a separate statement on Saturday that they were issuing an order requiring a closure of the plant for a period of six days.

The shutdown could be extended if proper cleaning and employee testing can’t be achieved within a week, the department said. Facilities not impacted by the outbreak will remain open and workers there will receive regular testing. 

Officials said the outbreak at the Foster Farms Livingston complex has become the “most severe and long-lasting outbreak” in the county. In total, 392 workers have tested positive for the virus and eight have died from it. The local health department said late last month that Foster Farms employees have a case fatality rate of 2.2 percent, higher than the 1.3 percent in the county’s general population.  

“This Health Order is a significant step toward our ultimate goal of stemming the spread of COVID-19 in our community and saving lives,” Merced County Public Health Officer Salvador Sandoval said. “We take these types of situations very seriously. We’re grateful that Foster Farms was willing to come to the table and reach an agreement that will protect its employees while providing a blueprint for the company to continue its critical food production operations.”

The health department had previously said that officials at Foster Farms did not heed its advice earlier in the year about ways to address the potential threat the coronavirus posed to workers, CBS News reported. It reportedly took the company weeks to implement broad-scale testing. 

The local health department has also noted that the tally on worker coronavirus infections is mainly based on employees who volunteered to be tested, meaning the “true spread” is unknown. 

Food processing plants and other workplaces where employees are in close contact with one another have emerged as common spots for outbreaks amid the coronavirus pandemic. For example, more than half of the workforce at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Perry, Iowa, tested positive for COVID-19 in early May.

As many as 38,500 meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for the virus amid the pandemic, including at least 180 people who have died from it, according to a database maintained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Meat industry Poultry

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