RANTOUL — Rantoul Foods, which has had at least 87 workers stricken with COVID-19 at its meat processing plant, started hiring again.

But the meat processing company said new workers “must take a COVID-19 test and receive negative results prior to starting work,” in an email Monday to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Meantime, the food plant announced this week that three more workers had tested positive.

Rantoul Foods is one of Central Illinois’ largest meat processing plants. Until the outbreak began in late April, workers processed 35 million pounds of meat a month.

Now, “the plant has been operating at less than 50 percent of normal,” the company said, and plant officials are increasing production “in small increments as they have evaluated how to reincorporate employees who are returning from quarantine.”

Rantoul Foods reported its first COVID-19 case April 25. Health inspectors made an on-site visit April 27 and found the plant to be more than 90 percent out of compliance with infection control practices. But the plant had been under scrutiny by health officials since March.

The plant is currently complying with health regulations now,  health officials have said.

Rantoul Foods said it stopped hiring after the first confirmed case.

“After two weeks off and several days of no additional positive tests,” the company said it had  “begun to slowly resume the hiring process.”

Workers are now encouraged to get tested, although they are not required to. The plant conducted a two-day mass testing event for workers May 8 and 9 and was able to test 227 workers, plant management said earlier this month.  Up until then, about 200 workers had been tested. The plant has about 627 workers, management said in earlier interviews.

John Deere donated face shields “sufficient for the entire staff,” the company said. The shields are required in addition to the mandatory face masks workers must wear if they cannot maintain social distance “consistently throughout their shift.”

The shields are also available to workers to use, even if they can maintain social distancing.

A new drive-thru community-based testing site launched May 19 at a shopping center in Champaign — about 20 minutes away — and is geared toward anyone with symptoms and essential workers with or without symptoms. The test is free and no referral is needed.

Additional cases found

During a meeting between Rantoul Foods and the C-U Public Health Department (CUPHD) on May 20, the health department informed Rantoul Foods that three additional positive COVID-19 tests that were administered May 9 were Rantoul Foods employees.

The delay in attribution was due to discrepancies in contact information provided to the health department and the information Rantoul Foods had on record, according to a press release from SafeWorks Illinois.

These positive cases have been included in the CUPHD reports since test results were provided to the health department but are now being counted as part of the Rantoul Foods total.

Due to those individuals receiving positive test results, the health department had informed workers that they were under quarantine and unable to return to Rantoul Foods until they met the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for returning to work.

One additional positive case was reported to Rantoul Foods in the same meeting. This is an employee who took a voluntary self-quarantine beginning May 3. He developed symptoms May 16 and was tested the following day. Since his last day working at Rantoul Foods was May 2 and he first developed symptoms two weeks later, it is highly unlikely that he contracted COVID-19 at work. As with any other positive case, he has entered the CUPHD quarantine protocol and will not return to work until released to do so, the SafeWorks release said.

That brings the total number of Rantoul Foods employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 to 87.

The released cautioned that it “is important to note that only one of those cases is new since the tests administered on May 9th, and the new positive case is not a cause for concern for other employees based on the timing of the onset of his symptoms and his absence since May 3rd.”