Tyson Foods on Tuesday will resume limited operations for its Walla Walla County meat-packing plant, which has been hit by a major outbreak of the COVID-19 disease that prompted a late April closure.
The Tyson Fresh Meats plant is the largest beef-packing operation in Washington, employing more than 1,400 people.
The plant was shut down April 24 after more than 100 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, a mass screening of employees, now nearly completed, has found 147 additional positive cases — nearly 12 percent of the 1,239 workers tested, according to figures released Monday by Walla Walla County.
Three of the Tyson workers at the Wallula plant who contracted COVID-19 have died, according to the Benton-Franklin Health District.
“The health and safety of our team members is our top priority,” said Shane Miller, a senior vice president and general manager in a statement released Tuesday. “While the plant was idle, we performed a deep clean and sanitization of the facility and took proactive steps to complement our existing prevention efforts.”
The Tyson statement does not indicate how many workers will return Tuesday to resume limited operations.
Meghan Debolt, director of the Department of Community Health for Walla Walla County, said Monday that Tyson “is cleared to open with healthy workers.”
Employees who have tested negative are eligible to return to work, and those who tested positive can return after seven symptom-free days, according to a statement released by Walla Walla County.
Tyson Foods and other large meat packers have been battling major outbreaks of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus at plants across the country. There have been a series of meat-packing plant shutdowns that have raised concerns about meat shortages in grocery stores and prompted President Donald Trump to weigh in with an executive order last week that seeks to keep them open.
Union officials and other worker advocates have stressed the need for more protective gear and greater social distancing between workers, even if that means slower operations at meat-packing plants. And in Washington, worker advocates have been critical that Tyson did not take more preventive measures earlier this spring as the pandemic took hold in the region.
Walla Walla County health officials have imposed safety regulations at the Wallula plant that include requirements to wear masks, take temperatures and put plexiglass barriers between workers when they are not 6 feet apart.
Tyson’s Tuesday statement said team members returning to work will begin their shift with a facility tour to learn about changes made to promote social distancing. Protective measures will include infrared walk-through temperature scanners, mandatory facial protection, required use of face shields for team members where physical barriers can’t be put in place, and wellness checks to screen employees.
Tyson also has partnered with Matrix Medical Network to prove a mobile health clinic at the Pasco facility that will provide diagnostic testing for COVID-19 and access to nurse practitioners.
The Tyson plant employs many workers who have came to America from other countries, including 65-year-old Jorge Leandro Guijarro Castaneda, who died of COVID-19 on May 1 after many years of employment there, according to Betty Pacheco, a longtime friend.
“He was a very good and honest man,” Pacheco said.
Castaneda, whose death was confirmed by Mueller’s Funeral Home of Kennewick, started feeling sick in March. Initially, he kept going to work at the plant, where his job involved cleaning up work areas, according to Pacheco. By early April, he was staying home from the job, and sometime in the middle of the month went to a Tri-Cities hospital, where he died after a long stay, Pacheco said.
“He wasn’t sick before. He never missed any work. He was a very healthy man with no underlying illnesses,” Pacheco said. “He kept hoping he would get better.”
The plant where Pacheco worked is a major beef supplier that sits next to an enormous holding area for cattle. When operating at full speed, Tyson Foods says the plant can produce enough beef in a day to serve 4 million meals.
When the plant shut down, a worker interviewed by The Seattle Times said it was operating at a much slower pace than normal due to shortages of workers.
Some had fallen sick. Some had been told to quarantine and some had stayed away because of concerns about contracting the disease.