Kansas sausage making plant shuts down amid COVID-19 cases


TOPEKA Kan. (AP) — A Kansas plant that makes sausage shut down Wednesday after employees tested positive for the coronavirus, and an outbreak that has infected hundreds at the state's largest prison claimed the life of another worker.

The shutdown at the Johnsonville plant in Holton, which employees about 230 workers, took effect Wednesday after five employees tested positive.

The shutdown comes after President Donald Trump ordered meatpacking plants to stay open amid the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said plants that shut down must reopen as soon as able and, if they don't have a timetable to do so, file a written plan for reopening.

"Our priority will always be the health and safety of our members," Johnsonville CEO Nick Meriggioli said in a written statement. "We realize that we play an important role in the food supply and therefore we will resume operations at this plant as soon as we believe our facility and our members are healthy again, and can operate in a safe environment and manner."

Johnsonville said all employees will continue to get paid, and downtime will be used to implement additional safety measures, such as installing additional barriers between workstations where social distancing isn't possible.

Dr. Lee Norman, the top administrator at the state health department, said the state has now seen eight clusters of coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants, including one in Missouri close to the state line that employs Kansas workers. He said they have accounted for 1,536 cases and four deaths.

Those cases make up 20% of the state's 7,468 total cases, a number that is believed to be low because of initial limits in testing. The state has counted 164 COVID-19 deaths, while Johns Hopkins University reported 184.

And the communities around the plants also are affected. Three southwest Kansas counties with plants — Ford, Seward and Finney — together accounted for nearly 40% of the state's total cases. Neighboring counties also are being hit.

"We're seeing community spread, or household spread and community spread, from those that were initially affected in the meatpacking plants, and I guess that's the part that concerns us more than the young, healthy workforce population," said Dr. Drew Miller, who practices family medicine in Lakin in Kearney County. The county has 34 cases, for a rate of 8.9 for every 1,000 residents -- far above the state's figure of 2.56.

He expects to Kearny County to diverge with the state when it reaches the second phase of Kelly's plan to reopen the economy on May 18.

"It is an eerie thought, but as everybody else talks about reopening, it still feels like we're looking COVID-19 straight in the eyes," he said

Meanwhile an outbreak at the Lansing Correctional Facility continued to worsen, as the state announced that a worker in his 50s had died Tuesday. The announcement followed the death of another guard Monday.

Three inmates also have died in the outbreak, which has infected 88 staff members and 754 of the approximately 1,710 men imprisoned there. The vast majority of the infected inmates, 85%, have no symptoms.

Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda said the department will begin mass testing of its staff at Lansing and a Wichita work release facility starting Thursday and into next week. Zmuda said there are no plans for now to release more inmates early and put them on house arrest after the state started doing so two weeks ago and stopped after six offenders because of the Lansing outbreak.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, or death.


Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.


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