An outbreak at Long Prairie Packing Co. is contributing to the precipitous rise in COVID-19 cases in Todd County, a public health official confirmed Friday, May 22.

Katherine Mackedanz, Todd County community health manager, said the county’s health and human services department is working in partnership with Lakewood Health System and packing plant owner American Foods Group to test all employees of the beef processing facility. About 630 people work at the plant. Todd County reported 24 new cases of COVID-19 Friday for a total of 140. A month earlier on April 22, just two cases had been reported in the county, and since Monday, May 18, cases have nearly doubled.

While practitioners from Lakewood were already conducting on-site testing at the packing facility for employees experiencing symptoms, the operation expanded Thursday to include everyone regardless of symptoms. Tests were completed for 170 employees Thursday and another 160 Friday.

“The purpose of the testing is to find those workers who are infectious with the virus and to isolate them by having them stay home to limit the spread of the disease in the plant and the community,” a news release stated. “Employees who are tested will receive their results from Lakewood Health System within 48 hours.”

As results trickle in and with more testing ahead, Mackedanz said she expected to be able to offer more specific information concerning the number directly linked to the plant who’ve tested positive by early next week. She said those who’ve tested positive so far have displayed mild symptoms or have been asymptomatic. There are no hospitalizations tied to the plant outbreak as of Friday, and she noted the population is primarily younger and in good health.

“It’s going as well as we can expect,” Mackedanz said by phone Friday. “But it’s definitely challenging, you know, when you have a large population that may have the virus, it sort of feels a little challenging to sort of control it.”

Employees of the plant are undergoing health screenings upon arriving at work and plant officials have taken a number of other precautions in the facility, Mackedanz said, including personal protective equipment and barriers in the work area.

But prevention efforts at the plant don’t necessarily impact the lives of employees outside of work, she said. The heavily Latino population that makes up the workforce at the facility is more likely to have a higher number of household members, she added, many of whom also work at Long Prairie Packing or other meatpacking facilities in the region.

“Sometimes it just can’t be prevented when people interact at work and interact at home,” Mackedanz said. “The virus is going to do what it’s going to do. I think it has a lot to do with this population that works at the plant also socializes outside the plant together. … While the plant can do everything they can to try to protect their employees, people then leave and drive in a car together and live together and socialize together, and that’s just inevitable.”

A report released May 8 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined outbreaks in meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states. At that time, outbreaks were noted in 115 processing facilities with 4,913 cases and 20 deaths.

“Persons in congregate work and residential locations are at increased risk for transmission and acquisition of respiratory infections,” the report stated. “ … Factors potentially affecting risk for infection include difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions.”

Mackedanz encouraged Todd County residents to continue taking precautions of social distancing, mask-wearing, sanitizing and staying at home whenever possible, particularly in light of the outbreak and known community transmission.

“I think the community overall needs to continue the safe precautions and just be a little more rigorous about it,” she said. “I think everyone is getting ready to get back to bars and restaurants, but we have to remember that this virus is going to spread differently in different communities. And right now our community is experiencing definitely an increase in the virus and transmission locally, and we need to then be even more aware of what that might for those who want to socialize and want to get back to normal.”

Several meatpacking facilities throughout the United States have been sites of outbreaks of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This caused instability in the supply chain for meat products and led to the euthanization of thousands of hogs unable to be processed in limited or shuttered facilities.

Work will continue at Long Prairie Packing. Employees who test negative may continue to work, but must continue to undergo rigorous screening at the worksite. Plant officials have been cooperating fully with health officials on the response to cases in the plant.

“Our number one priority is the safety of our employees and the community of Long Prairie. We are thankful to Lakewood Health System and Todd County Health & Human Services for their support,” stated Jennifer Dibbern, public communications of American Foods Group in a news release.

Other area case updates

Crow Wing, Morrison and Mille Lacs counties all reported new cases Friday. Crow Wing and Morrison each added two cases, while Mille Lacs reported one new infection.

Crow Wing saw two more patients in long-term care added to the list for a total of 11.

Data as of May 22

  • Aitkin — 4.

  • Cass — 10, with 2 deaths.

  • Crow Wing — 42, with 1 death.

  • Mille Lacs — 15, with 1 death.

  • Morrison — 34.

  • Todd — 140.

  • Wadena — 6.

NOTE: These numbers are cumulative since March 21 and many are likely out of isolation. The number of those no longer needing isolation is not reported on a county-level basis by the state.

Statewide

  • Number of tests — 180,971.

  • Total positive cases — 19,005.

  • Positive health care workers — 2,216.

  • Age range with greatest number of cases — 30-39 years old, with 20.1% of cases.

  • Currently hospitalized — 534, with 233 in intensive care.

  • Total deaths — 842.

  • Deaths among those in long-term care or assisted living — 688.

  • No longer needing isolation — 12,696.

Compiled from Minnesota Department of Health data and county sources.