Officials at the Texas Department of State Health Services say they are continuing to monitor the rising number of COVID-19 cases associated with a Tyson processing plant in Shelby County.
A team from the department last week began assessing infection prevention measures at the plant, which has been closed since April 18 for previously scheduled construction, according to Department of State Health Services press officer Lara Anton.
Fifty-six cases of COVID-19 are associated with the plant, she said, 33 of which are Shelby County residents.
“We are aware of 12 cases in Louisiana residents that are associated with the Tyson plant,” she said. “There have been three fatalities associated with this outbreak.”
The three fatalities were all Texas residents. Shelby County on Monday had a total of 98 confirmed cases of the virus.
An employee at the plant said company officials failed to take safety precautions as the coronavirus was spreading. That employee said plant workers were previously told that they would not be receiving masks “because the virus might get trapped inside the masks, which would continually expose us to the virus.”
The employee spoke to The Daily Sentinel on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media and feared losing their job for doing so.
“One of our safety team members was later one of the first diagnosed with the virus,” the employee said.
In an April 10 letter, health commissioner John Hellerstedt wrote to officials for Tyson Foods that the department was “not currently seeking a temporary closure” of the facility but asked the company to provide written confirmation it would take additional actions beyond those previously outlined by the facility in a letter to the state.
“I appreciate the commitment Tyson Foods has expressed in our call and in writing,” Hellerstedt wrote. “We know these actions are effective against the virus, and strict adherence will result in a healthier Texas.”
In an email, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods did not specifically address the investigation of the Shelby County facility but listed some of the measures the company was taking at its facilities, including distancing workers on the production floor, and noted its protocol for notifying workers of confirmed cases.
“The company began issuing my area masks about three weeks ago and distancing tables in the break room. I don’t know how the company can test everyone when work starts up next week or if we will receive hazard pay,” an employee of the Center plant said over the weekend. “After the plant reopens next week, there are plans to reduce the number of USDA inspectors in the plant because of the new innovations.”
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor Occupation Safety and Health Administration cited the Tyson facility in Shelby County for “15 serious violations” endangering employee safety. Tyson was fined more than $260,000, according to OSHA.
Meatpacking plants across the nation have been affected with high numbers of coronavirus cases that have led to facility closures. The Center plant represents one of the first known outbreaks at a plant in Texas.
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson on April 6 issued a statement from CEO Noel White stating facilities are being cleaned and “this additional cleaning sometimes requires suspending at least one day of production.”
Officials at the Nacogdoches Pilgrim’s plant, which employs more than 1,500, say safety measures there include installation of plexiglass dividers, staggered shifts and increased spacing during shifts and breaks.
Pilgrim’s spokesperson Nikki Richardson said the local plant remains open and operational.
The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.