As JBS Outbreak Intensifies, Grand Island Mayor Calls on USDA Secretary For Testing Resources

April 30, 2020 - 5:01pm

Meatpacking communities across Nebraska are still processing President Trump's recent executive order that forces meatpackers to stay open amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue will lead the effort to keep plants open. The order gives Perdue authority to help meatpacking plants implement recent OSHA safety guidelines, but some areas also hope a federal connection will lead to testing more workers.

Over 1,000 people in the Grand Island area have contracted COVID-19. At least 200 of them are workers at the JBS beef plant in Grand Island, but the company hasn't closed its doors.

Now that pausing production is fully off the table, Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele said the onus is on President Trump and Perdue to help the plant avoid more widespread callouts due to illness.

"The COVID-19 virus is hitting us harder because we have many industries that support crucial supply chains. Now more than ever, Grand Island has a special responsibility to support agriculture and supply food for the nation," he said.

And Steele wants details about any federal assistance in person. He sent a letter to Perdue Thursday requesting he visit the city. He's hoping Perdue can see Grand Island's challenges for himself.

"I want Secretary Purdue to come to Grand Island so I can explain to him the problems we have faced with government orders that have failed to protect the people of Grand Island," he said.

Part of the city's problem, he said, is that while the state's COVID-19 plan initially recommended people transition to working from home, that was never an option for thousands of people in Grand Island.

"That probably works wonderfully well in a city like Omaha or Lincoln, where people can pick up a laptop computer and go home and work from there," Steele said. "But when you're talking about food processing or building combines, those people have to go to the job site. So that's where the plan broke down."

And like many communities across the country, Grand Island didn't have the testing capacity to fully monitor outbreaks at JBS as they emerged. Tests were especially hard to come by in early April when the virus was likely starting to spread in the community. Supplies were prioritized at the time for first responders, healthcare workers, or at-risk patients. Steele has appreciated help from the Nebraska National Guard, but they too have been stretched thin. Testing has been sporadic ,as several other communities need testing assistance too.

Now that workers will be federally required to come to work despite the risks, Steele thinks it's only fair to put federal resources into fully tracking the plant's outbreak.

"If I were a worker at JBS, I would feel more comfortable going to work if I knew I had been tested, and the person I'm standing next to had been tested," he said.

"So when the president says he's ordering it to stay open, I consider it the responsibility of the federal government to reach out to JBS and said, 'How can we help you, and also implement dedicated testing for those workers?'"

Steele has worked with JBS over the past few weeks to implement more safety precautions for employees, and said. He said he's satisfied with the company's efforts over the past few weeks.

"I think they have sincerely tried to make the premises as safe as possible, given we're dealing with a microscopic pathogen," he said.

Biomedical preparedness experts at UNMC have applauded the company's efforts in Grand Island, too. 

But the measures ultimately haven't stopped Grand Island from rising to the top of Nebraska's list of COVID-19 hotspots.

"The most heart wrenching thing for me to know is that Grand Island makes national news because of the coronavirus," he said.

"I don't think any city wants to be on the national news for something like a disease, okay?"

But he said the city has largely stepped up to the plate on social distancing. That's given him hope during the daily onslaught of managing a city in crisis.

"We're going to do everything we can to rehabilitate ourselves, and we will return normal someday," he said.

"I would just like to see maybe some help, for instance, like testing at JBS, to know there are others out there who are willing to help us out a little bit."



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