The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to have the county’s health department work with city officials in Vernon and union officials to investigate nine industrial facilities that have experienced outbreaks of the coronavirus.
The largest outbreak occurred at the Farmer John slaughterhouse, where 153 workers have tested positive for COVID-19, health officials said last weekend.
“L.A. County public health experts are working closely with Vernon’s Health and Environmental Control Department to ensure all preventive measures are taken to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said Sunday. “Our public health experts are making sure employees with the virus, and their families, remain quarantined to minimize exposure to others. I remind everyone to wear a cloth face mask when outside, stay home as much as possible, and maintain at least six feet of distance when around others. Together, we can slow the spread of this virus to keep our families and communities safe.”
At Solis’ recommendation, the board voted to have health officials report back within a week on all nine facilities’ compliance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and CalOSHA COVID-19 guidelines. The group will also look at support by operators for workers and surrounding communities.
Other facilities with outbreaks of between five and 24 employees testing positive are CLW Foods, which handles meat; Vie De France Yamazaki, baked goods; California Farms Meat, Takaokaya USA, green tea; F. Gavina & Sons, coffee; Golden West Trading, meat, Overhill Farms, frozen foods; and Rose & Shore, deli meat and prepared foods, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
Officials said it was unclear if the rise in cases is due to additional testing or to spread among workers. Companies are required to report any COVID-19 cases to the City of Vernon and all positive cases are reported to Public Health.
“We are closely monitoring outbreaks within facilities in the city of Vernon, as many of the employees reside in adjacent Southeast Los Angeles communities,” said Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health. “We have assigned an infectious disease doctor to work closely with the Vernon health director on response and mitigation plans, and we are engaging in comprehensive contact tracing protocols to ensure that close contacts are identified and isolation and quarantine orders are issued, to keep employees and their families safe.”
Officials are worried that workers in the plants could spread the virus throughout their communities.
“The city’s Department of Health and Environmental Control has been working proactively with businesses in the city of Vernon that have five (5) or more confirmed COVID-19 positive employees,” said Freddie Agyin, director of Vernon Health & Environmental Control. “The Department continues to review information on facilities’ COVID-19 mitigation plans to ensure they comply with CDC and CalOSHA recommended guidelines.”
On Monday, the union that represents some 1,300 Farmer John employees called for an immediate closure of the plant.
“Working conditions inside the plant are similar to what we are seeing nationwide in Smithfield plants,” said John Grant, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. “Workers are still too close together on the line, in the breakroom, the bathrooms and other such hubs. Smithfield has not provided full information about what is really going on inside the Vernon plant. Without information we cannot make an informed decision about workers’ health and safety. Therefore, we are calling for Smithfield to continue paying workers while they close the plant for a complete and thorough investigation and cleaning and to ensure the company is complying with Cal/OSHA and Department of Public Health guidance.”
Smithfield Foods, the Virginia-based company that owns the Farmer John plant, said it has implemented stringent new health protocols to protect against the virus.
“Our Smithfield family members are crucial to our nation’s response to COVID-19. We thank them for keeping food on America’s tables, and have implemented aggressive measures to protect their health and safety during this pandemic,” Smithfield Foods said in a statement.
Among the measures Smithfield says it has put in place:
— Adopted a series of stringent and detailed processes, protocols and protective measures that follow and in some cases, exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for meat and poultry processing workers and employers;
— Boosted personal protective equipment (PPE) to include masks and face shields;
— Installed plexiglass and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms;
— Implemented mass thermal scanning systems to identify employees with elevated temperatures prior to entering facilities;
— Made free voluntary COVID-19 testing available to employees;
— Increased social distancing wherever possible;
— Added abundant hand-sanitizing stations;
— Enhanced cleaning and disinfection;
— Explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms;
— Requiring that sick employees stay home and isolate according to CDC and OSHA guidelines;
— Paying employees, including any and all bonuses, when they are quarantined;
— Offering paid leave for all employees at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19;
— Expanded employee health benefits and removed all barriers in its health plan to access medical care, including eliminating co-pays for COVID-19-related testing and treatment;
— Educating all employees about how COVID-19 spreads and how to protect themselves and others;
— Posted employee communications in multiple languages;
— Deferred all nonessential business travel;
— Restricted all nonessential visitors.
The cases at the Farmer John plant represent the largest coronavirus outbreak in a nonresidential setting in Los Angeles County.
Thousands of pigs are trucked each week into the facility at 3049 E. Vernon Ave., where they are killed and turned into Dodger Dogs, as well as the ham, bacon, sausage and hot dogs sold under the Farmer John label.
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