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Covid-19 outbreak hits Rantoul, Illinois, pork plant

One of the largest meat processing plants in central Illinois is battling an outbreak of coronavirus in which 21 cases of COVID-19 have been already been counted, a company official confirmed Monday.

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, said Jerry Jacobsen, the company’s director of human resources, safety, and business administration. Since then 20 more cases have been reported.

Jacobsen said the company is taking safety measures to bring the outbreak under control.

“The first thing is the health of our employees,” Jacobsen said, “because without our employees we don’t have a business.” 

The first worker identified with COVID-19 has now recovered and returned to work, he said. 

The Rantoul, Illinois plant’s total cases make up the overwhelming majority of the total 27 cases reported in Rantoul. Village of Rantoul Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said in an email that officials “have assisted some commercial and industrial businesses in identifying resource providers for masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.”

“With the testing that has occurred at Rantoul Foods, and with the availability of tests in Champaign County allowing more to be tested, it is no surprise to see an increase in the numbers,” Eisenhauer said. “As we have all learned through this process, when more people are tested the numbers of confirmed cases rise, so a contributing factor to the increase in numbers is also a reflection that more in Rantoul are getting tested.” 

As of April 30, there have been at least 6,300 reported positive cases tied to at least 98 meatpacking facilities in 28 states, and at least 30 reported worker deaths at 17 plants in 12 states, according to previous reporting by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

In Champaign County, 173 total cases have been reported since March, with six deaths attributed to the virus. The meat processing plant has contributed to a recent surge in cases.

The plant’s first cases were reported just days before President Trump ordered meatpacking plants to remain open to mitigate food shortages. 

Counting temporary employees, Rantoul Foods has 650 workers and produces 4.5 million servings of pork a day. 

Plant sanitation procedures were already comprehensive because “we are making food,” Jacobsen said, and seven U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors were on site daily. 

“Since this happened, we’ve reevaluated the process and chemicals to make sure we’re using the most effective ones in the plant,” he said. 

Now the plant’s common areas, restrooms, and locker rooms are sanitized at least three times a day, and employees are given a health screening when they come to work and provided a mask, Jacobsen said. 

Further, the plant has slowed down line processing speeds by one half, he said, to both give employees more space to work and to accommodate a drop in employees. 

“Employees are crowded so close together because of line speeds,” Jacobsen said. 

And the company is allowing employees to decide if they want to come to work or not, regardless if they have tested positive for the virus. 

“We have more than 40% of employees who have chosen not to come to work because they are afraid ... and they are protecting their families,” Jacobsen said. “We’re doing the best we can without them and not penalizing them in any way.” 

Health officials from the Champaign-Urbana Health District visited the plant on April 27, 28, and 29, he said, and found operations to be in full compliance with their recommendations to mitigate the spread. 

Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said in an email that health officials were working with plant management on “testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine. We are also following up to ensure that they are following the infection control plans.”

Jacobsen said they are testing all employees and “are partway there.”

“Of our population, we are working on testing everyone ... so there is a positive rate under 4%,” he said. 

“This has impacted everything about our business and we have no idea of the end result for us,” Jacobsen said. “We just know we need to protect our employees.”

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