CORONAVIRUS UPDATE | Surge in Rantoul cases linked to pork plant

All but seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rantoul have been linked to the Rantoul Foods pork plant.

RANTOUL — A sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in Rantoul has been linked to an outbreak at the hog processing plant Rantoul Foods.

As of Monday, there were 32 confirmed cases among Rantoul Foods employees, according to Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde.

The number of total cases in Rantoul Monday also stood at 32, but not all Rantoul Foods employees live in Rantoul or even in Champaign County, Pryde said.

Rantoul Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said village officials were notified April 27 that there were two confirmed COVID-19 cases at Rantoul Foods.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District took two immediate steps, establishing testing for employees at the plant and working with management to implement infection control measures, he said.

The plant was permitted to reopen April 29, with the anticipation that additional testing would likely turn up more cases, Eisenhaurer said. The case count at the plant had grown to 20 by this past weekend, he said.

Pryde said meat processing plants have already received guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health and federal agencies because they’re known to have outbreaks.

Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said at least 5,000 meat packing workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus, and 20 have died.

Additionally, 22 plants, both union and nonunion, have closed at some point in the last two months, impacting more than 35,000 workers, according to the UFCW.

As part of its response to the outbreak at Rantoul Foods, the local public health district has gotten additional information to the plant and has been doing monitoring there, Pryde said.

“We’re working closely with them, and we will monitor them closely,” she said.

Tracing close contacts of the infected workers at the plant was still underway Monday, Pryde said.

Rantoul Foods management couldn’t be reached by The News-Gazette Monday.

Jerry Jacobsen, the company’s director of human resources, safety and business administration, told the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting that sanitation procedures have been re-evaluated. The plant’s common areas, rest rooms and locker rooms were being sanitized at least three times a day and employees are given a health screening when they come to work and provided a mask, he said.

Jacobsen also told the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting that employees are being given the option to stay home if they don’t want to come to work, regardless of whether they test positive for COVID-19, and more than 40 percent have chosen not to come to work.

Pryde said her staff tested 37 people at the plant, and then referred other employees who want testing to Christie Clinic and Carle sites in Champaign.

Plant employees have been asked to call public health for an authorization number to go to either of those sites for testing, she said.

Doing all of the testing on site “was the plan,” Pryde said. “But there were too many people. It was too chaotic, no social distancing.”

Eisenhauer said the recent spike in Rantoul cases hasn’t caused a panic.

Local residents recognize the source, and that testing is now more abundant.

Rantoul residents have been complying well with requirements to maintain social distances and have been wearing masks indoors at public places, as required, he said.

“I went to Walmart here on Sunday,” Eisenhauer said. “I couldn’t find anybody in there without a mask on.”

dpressey@news-gazette.com