More than 3,000 workers at Nebraska meatpacking and meat processing facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, and nearly every plant of any size in the state has had a significant outbreak.
Except for the Cargill Value Added Meats plant in Nebraska City.
Though Cargill has not publicly reported case numbers at its plants, it appears there have been few, if any, at the Nebraska City plant, which does not do slaughter but does process large carcass parts into packaged meats.
Otoe County has only reported seven COVID-19 cases so far, and the entire Southeast District Health Department, which also includes Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee and Richardson counties, had only 19 as of Tuesday.
Bryan Bequette, Nebraska City's mayor, said he doesn't have an explanation for the lack of cases, but he does think some of it may have to do with Otoe County's early response.
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He said officials from the city, county and health district met for the first time to talk about COVID-19 on March 5, a day before the state confirmed its first case.
Bequette said Cargill took early steps to "spread out as much as they could" at the plant, but beyond that he's not sure what special steps the company may have taken to keep employees from getting sick.
Cargill did not comment specifically on the Nebraska City plant and instead offered a standard statement about what steps it is taking at its plants.
"In partnership with the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, OSHA and other national and local health officials, we are proactively putting into place the latest available safety protocols appropriate for the contexts in which we operate," the statement said.
In a post on its website last month, Cargill said it has taken a number of protective steps at its plants, including increased sanitation, temperature checks for employees and installing protective barriers on the production floor when possible.
But that doesn't explain why those measures have apparently worked well in Nebraska City but not at many other Cargill plants, including one in Schuyler that had to shut down temporarily last month so it could be cleaned and employees tested after hundreds of workers became sick.
One explanation for the lack of cases could be a lack of testing.
Only 630 people in Otoe County have been tested for COVID-19, although that amounts to about 4% of the county population of nearly 16,000.
The city did do a mass testing event last week that drew about 170 people, but it turned up zero positive cases, which Bequette said was a surprise.
"I was expecting at least maybe one or two (cases), but when it came back with none, it was like, 'Wow'," he said.
Yolanda Peck, a local community activist for Nebraska City's Hispanic community, told News Channel Nebraska last week that she thinks many plant workers may have avoided the mass testing event out of fear.
"I would have liked to have seen more immigrants take advantage of that testing," she said in an interview with the media outlet.
Grant Bruegemann, executive director of the Southeast District Health Department based in Auburn, said he doesn't know if any Cargill employees participated in the mass testing event.
He did say, though, that he is in contact with the local management at the plant weekly, and they have not expressed any concerns to him thus far or asked for any help with testing employees.
Bruegemann said he thinks the plant's smaller size — it reportedly has fewer than 500 employees — may be one reason why it has not experienced an outbreak, because there may not be as much of a need for workers to be close together as there is in larger plants.
He also said he thinks management at the plant has been good about taking necessary preventive steps to protect employees.
"I think that they were very proactive, especially considering what they saw happen at the plant in Schuyler," he said.
Bruegemann said the lack of population in Southeast Nebraska may also be playing a role. He noted that a Smart Chicken plant in Tecumseh also has had few COVID-19 cases.
"I really think it boils down to where we're located and being able to see what's going on in other parts of the state," he said.
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