Chicago | Reuters — COVID-19 cases at a JBS meatpacking plant in Colorado have more than doubled “in a number of days” and a sixth employee died of the virus, a union official said on Thursday, underscoring the risks of U.S. meat plants reopening.
The beef plant at Greeley, about 65 km north of Denver, started operating last Friday after it was closed for about two weeks following an outbreak among workers.
“The uptick in cases in a matter of days shows how serious this crisis is and the dangers that workers are facing every day just trying to do their jobs,” Kim Cordova, leader of the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) chapter, said in an e-mailed news release.
Confirmed cases among workers at the plant rose from 120 on Sunday to 245 on Wednesday evening, a union spokeswoman told Reuters, citing numbers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
JBS USA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the most recent worker death and rising cases in Colorado.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday invoked the Defense Production Act to mandate meat plants continue to function during the pandemic after companies warned of looming shortages. The order is designed in part to give them legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.
Cordova reiterated workers’ demands for protective equipment and testing, as well as stronger whistleblower laws and better health care.
“Our members share a common goal with JBS, federal, state and local authorities: to ensure that the plant continues to function to protect the food supply chain and to protect jobs, but it must be done in a way that protects the workers so no one else has to die,” she said.
Some 20 plants in North America have closed in recent weeks. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said they would open in “days not weeks,” in an interview on Fox News on Thursday. He said the department, which is overseeing Trump’s order, is working to ensure workers’ safety.
Brazilian-owned JBS said on Wednesday it was reopening a Minnesota pork plant shuttered by the pandemic to euthanize up to 13,000 pigs rather than produce pork.
— Reporting for Reuters by Tom Polansek; writing by Caroline Stauffer.