Monday, May 11th, 2020
Cooper plant a hotbed of virus
By Leslie Gartrell
ST. HENRY - Of the 79 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mercer County, 24 are currently employed by the Cooper Farms Processing Plant in St. Henry, according to a news release from the Mercer County Health District on Saturday.
The plant employs approximately 700 people, and infected employees make up 4% of the workforce at that location, according to Kristy Fryman, public information officer at the health department.
The 24 infected workers make up more than 30% of all confirmed cases in the county.
The first confirmed case at the plant was on April 20, according to Fryman. She added the health department had been in contact with the plant since the first week of March and implemented further prevention measures the following week.
Cassie Jo Arend, company corporate communications manager for Cooper Farms, said infected employees come from different areas, departments and shifts. The company has yet to find a connection between the infected employees, and Fryman said the health department is still investigating how the employees became infected.
Before entering the processing plant, employees must drive through a tent outside the facility to have their temperatures taken and recorded to screen for COVID-19 symptoms, Arend said. Anyone who fails to meet the set criteria will be sent home.
Employees have to wear face masks and follow enhanced sanitation procedures once inside, and team members who may be sick during their shift are sent home.
"Our top priority has been putting extra measures in throughout the company to ensure safety," Arend said. "We want our people to be safe."
In the news release, the health department said Cooper Farms have also implemented an "aggressive" sanitizing schedule, physical barriers where team members cannot maintain 6 feet of separation, staggered start and break times and have limited rotation of team members from one area or department to another.
Arend said commonly touched surfaces are sanitized every two hours, including lockers, break room tables and more, which are being cleaned more frequently than before. She added the company is doing all it can to keep employees safe while still producing food products.
Although employees at the processing plant who have respiratory symptoms are being tested for the coronavirus, health officials in the release stated they do not recommend testing all employees at this time.
The health department completed a walk-through of the plant recently to ensure all safety precautions were fully enforced, which health officials said went well.
"Cooper Farms was checking employee temperatures and using social distancing and shielding to protect employees before the first case occurred," Fryman said.
Fryman said once the health department is notified of a positive test result they will contact that individual and begin contact tracing. They also contact the employer to let them know of the positive result and ask about the last day that employee worked.
The employer will identify co-workers that are potential close contacts, which is considered a person within 6 feet with another for more than 15 minutes. People who may have been exposed are identified and contacted.
If they have symptoms, they are encouraged to seek care and test for COVID-19 and will be in isolation for 14 days depending on the test results and symptoms, Fryman said. If a person is not a close contact of the confirmed case, they would not be notified, she added.
You can view the press release here