By Alexa Ura, Texas Tribune
With its workforce at the center of a growing coronavirus outbreak in the Texas Panhandle, the massive JBS Beef meatpacking plant north of Amarillo said Wednesday afternoon that it would work with state health officials to begin testing its roughly 3,000 employees. The company initially rejected the state’s offer to test all of its employees, according to a state spokesperson.
A state response team recently created to facilitate testing in the Texas Panhandle has checked thousands of workers at another nearby plant but had not been allowed to test workers at the JBS plant in Cactus, said Seth Christensen, a spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. JBS Beef said in a statement Tuesday evening that there were “no plans” for targeted testing of its mostly immigrant workforce. At least one meatpacking plant employee has died after being infected, and others remain hospitalized.
Late Wednesday afternoon, after the Tribune reported on the lack of testing, the company issued a new statement saying “we have been in conversations this afternoon to finalize the logistics for the testing, which will happen late next week.”
In the latest statement, company spokesperson Nikki Richardson said that before today, the company was “not aware of testing being offered by the state for our employees. In previous conversations, we made it clear that we would actively encourage our team members to participate in a community testing program, should one become available.” Christensen said the state had extended its offer earlier, and he confirmed the company is now working out details to begin the testing.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott coupled his announcement about further reopening businesses in the state with the creation of surge response teams to address local outbreaks like those occurring in nursing homes, prisons and meatpacking plants. Officials have been tracking hundreds of cases tied to meatpacking plants in the Panhandle, which is now home to the highest infection rates in the state.
As a result, a collection of state officials, including personnel from the Texas Military Department and the Texas Division of Emergency Management, were deployed to the Panhandle to provide testing at meatpacking plants, which are largely staffed by Hispanics and immigrants who have little power to avoid the virus.
In the last week, more than 3,500 workers have been tested at the Tyson Food plant in Amarillo, according to Christensen, the emergency management agency’s spokesperson. When facility-wide testing was not being allowed at JBS in Moore County, Christensen said the surge response team remained “ready to help.”
With 24.54 infections per 1,000 residents, Moore County has the highest known infection rate in the state. The county’s rate is nearly 14 times that of Harris County, the state’s most populous county.
State health officials have identified a rapidly growing cluster of cases tied to the JBS plant. As of Monday, that cluster comprised 323 people who had tested positive for the virus — up from 243 on May 3 and 114 on April 21, when the state first confirmed the outbreak to The Texas Tribune. Not all of those individuals live in Moore County; the plant draws workers from a wide swath of the Panhandle, including Amarillo, and some from Oklahoma.
The gap in the state’s response to the Panhandle outbreaks comes just as state officials are taking steps to expand testing among the other groups the governor has identified as “vulnerable populations.”
On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced it would begin widespread testing of state prisoners after receiving tens of thousands of new tests that inmates will administer themselves. That announcement came one day after Abbott directed mass testing of all residents and staff at Texas nursing homes.
Across the country, the coronavirus has spread easily in meatpacking plants, where workers typically stand shoulder to shoulder on fast-moving butchering lines. More than a dozen have been forced to shut down temporarily after surges in infections and deaths tied to those facilities. The processing plants, including those in Texas, have scrambled to ramp up health and safety precautions, providing masks and eye protection to workers and placing plastic dividers in some areas.
But workers at JBS and family members of JBS employees who have been infected have told the Tribune that plant management was slow to acknowledge when workers began testing positive, and those who come in contact with the sick are not always informed of their exposure.