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Cluster of COVID-19 cases confirmed in Magic Valley food processing plant

Posted at 4:23 PM, May 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-25 19:49:08-04

JEROME, Idaho — At least 30 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at a Jerome County food processing plant, according to the South Central Public Health District.

This marks one of the largest jumps the region has seen in several weeks, and the district says they expect the number of cases to be much higher as more test results come in. This jump in cases is the result of increased testing.

No fatalities have been linked to the cases, but district spokeswoman Brianna Bodily says at least one person has been hospitalized.

"The priority at this point is actually to reach out to people who may have been exposed and let them know that they need to take precautions to protect their own health, first of all, and make sure that if they did pick it up from any one of these people they don't spread it onto anyone else," Bodily said.

The district says they expect to see more cases in surrounding counties because employees of this facility live and work in surrounding counties.

Our media partners, the Idaho Statesman, report officials with the food processing plant, Rite Stuff Foods, ordered testing of the plant's employees after learning more than 10 employees were sick.

“Immediately after learning of these cases, Rite Stuff Foods determined that identifying cases would help protect employees and limit spread, so we employed a mass testing effort and tested all employees at the facility,” MacArthur wrote in a statement emailed to the Statesman. “A mobile testing unit came to the facility on Tuesday, May 19, and tested all workers.”

The testing allowed the company to identify areas in the facility where exposure could have occurred, MacArthur said. Employees are now required to wear additional protective equipment and undergo temperature checks before entering the building.

“In order to provide a safe working environment for our employees at the facility, we temporarily closed all production lines for sanitation and increased precautions in the facility,” MacArthur wrote. “We’ve revised shifts to decrease numbers of employees and are currently working with each employee on contact tracing.”

Bodily told the Statesman Thursday afternoon that at least 11 employees who previously tested positive are no longer being monitored, in isolation or considered infectious.

All sick employees will be compensated for time off work as required by the Families First Coronavirus Act, according to MacArthur.

The district says they expect to see a focus on employees of food processing plants.

"We are in an area where agriculture is the dominant industry and food processing plants are a huge part of that,” said Logan Hudson, SCPHD Public Health Division Administrator. “The nature of some of these jobs require people to work closely together, making social distancing difficult. Respiratory viruses, like COVID-19, are in the perfect environment to spread rapidly.”

SCPHD is also investigating another cluster of cases at a food processing plant in Cassia County.

The FDA says there is no evidence of food or food packaging being involved in the transmission of the coronavirus.