More than 700 workers of the South Dakota plant have been infected

By Robyn Merrett
April 21, 2020 10:22 PM
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Smithfield Foods’ pork plant in South Dakota has been revealed to be one of America’s biggest coronavirus (COVID-19) clusters.

As of Tuesday, more than 700 workers of the South Dakota plant in Sioux Falls have been infected with the virus, BuzzFeed News reported.

The first case of the virus at the facility was confirmed on March 26, The Hill reported. Within two weeks, the South Dakota location had more than 600.

As more workers became infected, the pork plant announced a temporary closure on April 12 until further notice.

Of the closure, President and CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a press release on the plant’s website: “The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” a news release from the plant’s website read. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals.”

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country. The virus is afflicting communities everywhere. The agriculture and food sectors have not been immune. Numerous plants across the country have COVID-19 positive employees. We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic. We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19,” he concluded.

Just days after the closure on April 14, plant worker Augustín Rodriguez, 64, died. He tested positive on April 9, local outlet Argus Leader reported.

A second Smithfield Foods employee named Craig Franken died on Sunday, Argus Leader reported. He was 61.

Rodriguez’s wife Angelita blames the plant for her husband’s death and condemned their handling of the virus.

“I lost him because of that horrible place,” Angelita, 73, told the Argus Leader. “Those horrible people and their supervisors, they’re sitting in their homes and they’re happy with their families.”

Smithfield Foods
| Credit: Stephen Groves/AP/Shutterstock

Angelita said her husband continued to work at the plant even after he experienced symptoms of the respiratory virus because he needed the money. On April 4, he was forced to call out sick after he began experiencing pain in his side. After receiving his positive test, Rodriguez was placed on a ventilator for two weeks before dying.

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A number of other employees — some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous — have since spoken out in frustration in regard to Smithfield Foods handling of the outbreak, explaining to BuzzFeed News that the plant allegedly didn’t do much to keep their employees protected and informed.

As cases continued to grow at the facility, employees said they were allegedly only told of the positive tests if they had recently had contact with that specific person, BuzzFeed News reported.

Other employees complained that when signs were plastered around the company, encouraging those who are feeling sick to go home, they were written in English, making it difficult for immigrants and non-English speakers to be in the know, BuzzFeed reported.

“With how we work on the line, I would say I got sick because of them not taking safety measures,” 22-year-old Michael Bul Gayo Gatluak told BuzzFeed News. “When they had their first case, I don’t think they acted accordingly.”

Gatluak shared that after the first case was reported, the facility’s manager allegedly revealed there would be “no changes” to operations.

As for the company’s response to the outbreak, Smithfield is blaming the employees’ home life on the colossal number of cases.

“Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” a spokesperson for the company told BuzzFeed News.

In an April 13 interview with Fox News, Gov. Kristi Noem said that “99 percent” of the positive cases weren’t “happening inside the facility,” but rather at the workers’ homes.

“A lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments,” Noem said.

Smithfield did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

As of Tuesday, there are now at least 780,536 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, the most worldwide.

At least 37,818 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus-related illness.

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