Walla Walla County health officials say they will allow the Tyson Fresh Meats plant near the Tri-Cities to continue operating with additional measures to protect workers from the new coronavirus.

About 42 people — most, if not all of them, employees — are believed to have COVID-19 linked to an outbreak at the Wallula plant, with health officials expecting more cases.

They include 36 people in Benton and Franklin counties. Most tested positive for the new coronavirus, but the total may include a few people with no test results who have had symptoms and close contact with those confirmed to have COVID-19.

Another six cases are reported in Walla Walla County, according to the latest information from Walla Walla County Emergency Management and the county’s Department of Community Health.

“We have two options — close the plant for 14 days and hope their employees stay under quarantine for those two weeks while at home, or work with them to be successful in prevention efforts,” said Meghan DeBolt, the Walla Walla County director of community health.

“It is likely that if the plant closes, transmission among workers will continue at home,” she said.

“We cannot guarantee that everyone will stay home, stay healthy,” she said.

Tyson employs about 1,400 at the plant south of Pasco.

Tyson began taking steps to prevent transmission among employees at its Wallula beef slaughter and processing plant a week ago.

But DeBolt does not expect to see the full effect for at least another week.

“We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people across the country,” said Gary Mickelson, senior director of public relations for Tyson Food.

MORE COVID-19 LIKELY

“We know there will be more cases in the coming days that are associated with exposure at the plant,” DeBolt said. “However, we anticipate a ‘flattening of the curve’ once the prevention efforts are in place later this week.”

Tyson has closed at least one plant in the U.S. because of the outbreak.

If the steps Tyson is taking do not reduce the transmission of the new coronavirus among workers, Walla Walla health officials will discuss whether the plant should continue to operate with the Washington state Department of Health and the Benton Franklin Health District, DeBolt said.

The focus is on protecting employees because public health and food safety experts do not have evidence to suggest that the new coronavirus is being transmitted by food or food packaging, Walla Walla County officials said in a statement.

However, workers in the plant with COVID-19 or any other illness that could cause them to cough or sneeze on food should not be in the plant, they said, citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service.

COVID-19 is believed to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.

Health officials have been talking with plant leadership and Tyson corporate leadership for about a week.

They visited the plant Monday afternoon and concluded that Tyson was making a concerted effort to minimize transmission among workers there.

“We were assured they were screening for fever, increasing physical distancing, spacing shift start times and had increased their cleaning,” DeBolt said.

PROTECTING TYSON WORKERS

Everyone has their temperature checked before entering the plant.

If Tyson is notified that a worker has tested positive for COVID-19, their workstation and locker are cleaned and sanitized. Employees in contact with the ill worker are told to stay home in isolation for 14 days.

To provide distance or barriers to prevent transmission among employees, clear plastic barriers are being installed between workstations on the production lines.

The barriers should all be up by the end of this week, according to county officials.

Shift times have been changed to allow 30 minutes between the end of one shift and the start of another, with employees leaving shifts and coming to work using separate doors to minimize contact.

The 30-minute gap also allows time for the air to be cleared, with the help of an increased turnover rate the plant’s air filtration system, county officials said.

A 20-by-50 foot vented tent has been set up outdoors to provide more space for employee breaks and meals.

Workers no longer use cash to buy food in the cafeteria. Instead, their badges are scanned for payment to minimize employee contact.

Sanitizing and cleanup has been stepped-up with 13 employees assigned solely to wipe down and sanitize frequently touched surfaces such as railings, floors and door handles.

Hand sanitizer stations have been set up throughout the plant.

The entire plant is cleaned and sanitized on the weekend.

Tyson has enough surgical masks for all employees. Workers are offered the masks, but not required to wear them, according to health officials.

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