UPDATE: 50 employees at one Magic Valley food plant have tested positive for coronavirus

Posted at 3:47 PM, May 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-22 17:47:18-04

JEROME, Idaho — This article was originallly written by Nicole Foy with the Idaho Statesman.

Public health officials have identified another large coronavirus outbreak at an Idaho food processing facility — this time in the Magic Valley.

At least 50 employees of Rite Stuff Foods, which makes specialty potato products in Jerome, have tested positive for coronavirus as of Friday, according to company representatives.

About 39 of those employees tested positive this week, after the company arranged to test 173 employees on Tuesday. Test results are still pending for two employees.

No fatalities are linked to the outbreak in the facility, according to South Central Public Health, but at least one person has been hospitalized. So far, the health district has confirmed 30 of the cases reported by Rite Stuff Foods, spokeswoman Brianna Bodily said.

John MacArthur, the managing director of Rite Stuff Foods, said the company learned that more than 10 employees were sick late last week.

“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.

Coronavirus cases in the South Central Publich Health District, particularly in the Magic Valley, have spiked in recent weeks. Twin Falls County, which borders Jerome, led the district with eight new cases on Thursday. With 286 confirmed cases, it trails only Ada (739) and Blaine (499) among the hardest-hit counties in the state, according to case counts posted by the state’s seven health districts.

At least two other large facilities in Idaho’s agricultural and food processing sector have reported large outbreaks in the last month. Roughly 25 employees linked to CS Beef Packers, a meatpacking plant in Kuna, have tested positive for coronavirus since March. The company has identified no additional cases since May 9.

Fry Foods shut down food processing facilities in Weiser — as well as one over the border in Ontario, Oregon — after employees tested positive for coronavirus in early May. More than 20 Fry Foods employees have tested positive for COVID-19, although the company has resumed limited production with employees that tested negative.

There is no evidence of food or food packaging being involved in the transmission of the coronavirus, according to the Food and Drug Administration.