Coronavirus kills 8, infects over 350 at poultry plant now told to shut down

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A poultry-processing plant where at least 358 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and eight have died was ordered by county health officials in California to temporarily shut down, officials said Thursday.

The Foster Farms plant in Livingston – in the heart of California’s Central Valley, about 115 miles southeast of downtown San Francisco – was told to close this week by the Merced County Department of Public Health.

“Due to the number of deaths and a need to quickly test both permanent and temporary employees at the Foster Farms Livingston Facility, the Merced County Health Officer has ordered the Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant to close until the plant is able to reopen safely,” the health department said Thursday in a statement.

Later Thursday night, a Merced County spokesman told the Fresno Bee that the county granted a 48-hour stay on the order to “help facilitate logistics associated with any necessary closure.” The spokesman, Mike North, said the stay was issued following a phone call with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary for food safety.

The Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant in Livingston, Calif.Google Maps

Phone calls and emails to Foster Farms, which is headquartered in Livingston, did not receive an immediate response Friday morning.

The USDA also could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

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Merced County health officials did not immediately respond to phone calls and an email.

The Foster Farms plant in Livingston was open and operational on Friday, according to three employees who answered phones at the facility Friday morning.

County health officials said in the statement that they had worked with the state health department and the state attorney general to try to help the company “limit the impact of the closure,” but that no agreement could be reached. “Temporarily shutting down a food production facility is the last option available in getting this outbreak under control,” the statement said.

The county’s public health officer, Dr. Salvador Sandoval, said a temporary closure was necessary to bring the outbreak at the plant under control.

“In view of increasing deaths and uncontrolled COVID-19 cases, the decision was made to order the Livingston Plant within the Foster Farms Livingston Complex closed until acceptable safety measures are in place,” Sandoval said in the statement.

“Our charge is to protect the public’s health, even in the face of difficult decisions. The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control. Our hearts are with the eight families who have lost a loved one,” he said.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the spread of the virus at the facility “alarming.”

“If we’re going to keep food on our tables during this pandemic, we must do a better job of protecting the essential workers who are putting it there,” Becerra said in the county statement. “Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant.”

The actual spread of the coronavirus at the plant is unclear because the 358 known cases were largely among employees who chose to be tested or who voluntarily submitted test results, the statement said.

The facility currently has the most severe and longest-lasting of 16 outbreaks of the virus in the county, the statement said.

The Foster Farms plant was first officially declared to have an outbreak on June 29, and at that time county health employees conducted a “courtesy walk-through” of the plant and gave recommendations, such as performing widespread testing of workers and changing employee break spaces, according to the statement.

The county health department continued to advise the plant during July about the need for widespread testing, particularly in two hard-hit departments.

But a site visit to the facility in early August by county health officials and state occupational health officials found that the recommendations made on June 29 had not been fully adopted, the county statement said.

Since then, “testing as required” by the health department has not been completed and “the spread of COVID-19 within the facility has not been contained and active outbreaks continue to exist, posing a significant threat to Foster Farms employees and the surrounding community,” the statement said.

Image: David K. LiDavid K. Li

David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.

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