RANTOUL — The meat processing plant hit with a coronavirus outbreak came under scrutiny by health officials in March before it was cited for being more than 90% out of compliance with infection control practices last week.
Public health officials said they visited Rantoul Foods — which had 47 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of May 5 - on April 27th after receiving reports of COVID-19 cases among company employees.
The visits followed weeks of email and phone calls with plant managers after the Champaign-Urbana Health District received complaints in early March, said Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde.
“All of this was completely preventable,” Pryde said in an interview Tuesday, noting had the plant taken action earlier .
Health officials also visited the plant on April 28 and 29 and have made several visits since then, said Jerry Jacobsen, the company’s director of human resources, safety and business administration. He said plant officials were not prepared for the outbreak.
“It was a surprise for us, we didn’t have a crystal ball,” he said Tuesday. “When it started hitting other similar manufacturers, we were already behind the eight ball , we just didn’t know it.”
Rantoul Foods, which is based in Rantoul and processes between 30 million and 35 million pounds of pork each month, saw its first case on April 25. Health officials expect to see even more cases.
“Of course, once one knows the virus exists among employees, drastic action needs to be taken to stop the spread,” Jacobsen said
Working with a mobile Carle Foundation Hospital unit, public health officials began testing employees onsite at the plant for a few hours on April 27.
But conditions were “too crowded” and dangerous for staff, Pryde said.
Now, there are signs posted to direct employees to call the public health district to receive a code for a public Covid-19 test at either Carle or Francis Nelson.
The tests are processed at Carle’s lab and the results are returned within 24 hours, Pryde said.
When there is a known outbreak at a business, Pryde said the health district authorizes public tests for everyone at the business.
President Trump ordered meat processing plants to remain open, despite hundreds of Covid-19 cases among workers. As of May 5, there have been at least 9,400 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 167 plants in 28 states, and at least 45 reported worker deaths at 24 plants in 15 states, according to reporting by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Champaign County, which is home to Rantoul Foods, is now reporting 208 cases.
Jacobsen said the health district inspectors came early Monday, April 27 and toured the facility because over that weekend they had positive results from some of our employees.
“ They made sure that we understood the mitigation requirements,” Jacobsen said in an email response to questions about the plant’s infection control practices. “ We needed to make some immediate changes. We did. They came to Rantoul Foods several days in a row after that, and have returned on other occasions since then as well.”
The company is in compliance with health regulations now, Pryde said on Tuesday.
Jacobsen said the company has made several changes to mitigate the spread of the virus - such as putting in more hand washing stations and more frequent cleaning of common areas, locker rooms and restrooms. Jacobsen also said the company significantly slowed down line speeds, allowing for more spacing between workers and the company is testing workers for fever and giving masks when they come work - all recommendations made by Illinois Department of Health.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the company wrote “We are complying 100% with CDC and OSHA guidelines. Further steps we are taking include: providing additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and more handwashing stations for all employees; communicating crucial information to our employees in multiple languages; increasing our already-rigorous sanitation procedures; increasing social distancing by adding common area space; and dramatically slowing production.”
The first known employee case of Covid-19 has recovered and returned to work, Jacobsen said.
A mass testing event to reach all employees is scheduled for Thursday and Friday, Pryde said.
Of testing, she said, “If there’s a positive, we do contact tracing and go back and trace who those people have had contact with and test them and quarantine them. It keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Jacobsen said that the plant is giving employees the option to stay at home from work without penalty, even if they don’t test positive. If they stay home, however, they don’t get paid.
About 20% of the plant’s workers are temporary workers and for both employees and temporary workers who opt to stay home, they can file for unemployment while doing so, Jacobsen said.
“We are doing the best we can, we are doing the right thing at all times with the resources we have,” he said.
The hourly rate for both employees and temporary workers starts at $13.70 an hour, a bump in pay that took effect in February, he said. Before then, temporary workers were starting at $11.50 an hour.
Employees can opt in to health insurance and premiums are deducted from the employee’s paycheck, Jacobsen said. Right now, if a worker opts to stay home, the company covers the deductible. He did not provide numbers on how many employees signed up for health insurance
“If they are not earning a paycheck , the company is picking up the tab,” he said. “We’re not deducting the cost from someone not getting paid.”
Temporary workers can opt for health insurance through their employment agency, Express Employment Professionals, said Manger Brooke Jordan. Temporary workers sign up separately for discounted health insurance, she said.