Coronavirus: the untold story of the largest American epidemic

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Graphic of a factory with viruses

How did the largest cluster in the United States emerge in a corner of South Dakota? The infections spread like wildfire in a pork factory and questions remain about what the company has done to protect workers.

In the afternoon of March 25, Julia sat down at her laptop and logged into a fake Facebook account. She opened it years ago in college to surreptitiously monitor the boys she had a crush on. But now, many years later, it was about to serve a much more serious purpose.

“Can you please examine Smithfield,” she typed a message to an account called Argus911, the Facebook-based advice line for local newspaper, Chief Argus. “They have a positive effect [Covid-19] cases and intend to remain open. “By” Smithfield “, she was referring to the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in her town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The factory – a huge eight-story white box perched on the Banks of the Big Sioux River – is the ninth largest pork processing facility in the United States. When operating at full capacity, it processes 19,500 freshly slaughtered hogs per day, slicing, grinding and smoking them in millions of pounds of hot bacon. dogs and hams cut in a spiral. With 3,700 workers, it is also the city’s fourth largest employer.

“Thanks for the tip,” replied the Argus911 account. “What was the work of the worker who tested positive? “

“We are not exactly sure,” replied Julia.

“Okay, thank you,” replied Argus911. ” We’ll be in touch. “

The following day, at 7:35 am, Chef Argus posted the story on his website: “A Smithfield Foods employee is positive for coronavirus.” The reporter confirmed through a company spokesperson that, in fact, an employee had tested positive, was in quarantine for 14 days, and that his work area and other common areas had been ” completely disinfected ”. But the plant, considered part of a “critical infrastructure industry” by the Trump administration, would remain fully operational.

“Food is an essential part of all of our lives, and our more than 40,000 American team members, thousands of American family farmers and our many other supply chain partners are a crucial part of the answer. of our country in Covid-19, “Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield said in an online video statement released March 19 to explain the decision to keep the factories open. “We take the greatest precautions to ensure the health and well-being of our employees and consumers. “

But Julia was alarmed.

“There had been rumors that there had been cases before that,” she recalls. “I have heard of people hospitalized in Smithfield in particular. They only know it by word of mouth. “

Julia does not work at the factory. She is a graduate student in her twenties, who stayed at home after the closure of her university in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Her parents, two longtime Smithfield employees with whom she is particularly close, told her what was going on at the factory that day. She was just one of the many adult children of factory workers – many children of first generation immigrants, some calling themselves the children of Smithfield – who made the decision to speak out about the epidemic.

“My parents don’t know English. They can’t defend themselves, ”said Julia. “Someone has to speak for them. “

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Her family, like many others in Sioux Falls, did everything they could to avoid getting sick. Julia’s parents used the rest of their vacation to stay home. After work, they took off their shoes outside and headed straight for the shower. Julia bought them cloth blindfolds at Walmart to cover their mouths and noses on the line.

For Julia, alerting the media was only the next logical step in trying to keep them healthy, creating public pressure to shut down the factory and keep her parents at home. Instead, it marked the start of almost three anguished weeks in which his mother and father continued to go to a factory they knew could be contaminated, in jobs they could not not afford to lose. They stood side by side within a foot of their colleagues on production lines, entering and leaving crowded locker rooms, aisles and cafeterias.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed cases among Smithfield employees slowly increased from 80 to 190 to 238.

By April 15, when Smithfield finally shut down under pressure from the South Dakota governor’s office, the plant had become the number one hotspot in the United States, with a group of 644 confirmed cases among Smithfield employees and the people who contracted it with them. In total, Smithfield-related infections account for 55% of the state’s workload, far exceeding its much more populous neighboring Midwest states in number of cases per capita. According to the New York Times, the number of Smithfield Foods cases has exceeded the warship USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois.

These figures were released a day after the death of the first Smithfield employee at the hospital.

“He caught this virus there. He was very healthy before, “said his wife Angelita to the BBC in Spanish. “My husband will not be the only one to die. “

Smithfield’s pork plant, located in a state run by Republicans and one of five in the United States that has not issued shelter orders, has become a microcosm of socioeconomic disparities exposed by the global pandemic. While many white-collar workers across the country take refuge there and work from home, food workers like Smithfield workers are considered “essential” and must stay on the front line.

Graphic of pigs wearing masks

“These jobs for essential workers are paid less than average employment across America, in some cases by large margins. Cashiers, home health aides – absolutely essential, on the front line, have to physically show up for work, ”said Adie Tomer. , member of the Brookings Institute. “They are more predominantly African-American or Hispanic than the overall workforce.”

Smithfield’s workforce is largely made up of immigrants and refugees from countries such as Burma, Ethiopia, Nepal, Congo and El Salvador. There are 80 different languages ​​spoken in the factory. Estimated average hourly range of $ 14 to $ 16. These hours are long, the work is grueling and standing on a production line often means being within a foot of your colleagues on either side.

The BBC has spoken to half a dozen current and former Smithfield employees who say that even if they were afraid to continue working, deciding between work and their health was an impossible choice.

“I have a lot of invoices. My baby is coming soon – I have to work, ”said a 25-year-old employee whose wife is eight months pregnant. “If I get a positive result, I’m really worried that I won’t be able to save my wife. “

Food processing plants across the country are experiencing outbreaks of coronaviruses that can disrupt the country’s food supply chain. A JBS meat packing plant in Colorado closed after five workers died and 103 were infected. Two workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa also died, while another 148 were sick.

The closure of a large meat processing plant like the one in Sioux Falls is causing massive upstream disruption, blocking farmers with nowhere to sell their livestock. About 550 independent farms send their pigs to the Sioux Falls plant.

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In announcing the closure, Smithfield CEO Sullivan warned of “serious, possibly disastrous, repercussions” on the meat supply.

But according to Smithfield employees, union representatives and supporters of the Sioux Falls immigrant community, the epidemic that led to the plant shutdown was preventable. They allege that early requests for personal protective equipment were ignored, that sick workers were encouraged to continue working and that information about the spread of the virus was kept from them, even when they risked exposing them family and the general public.

“If the federal government wants to keep the business open, then who is responsible for ensuring that these businesses do what they need to do to keep them safe?” Said Nancy Reynoza, founder of Que Pasa Sioux Falls, a Spanish-language news source who said that she has been hearing distressed Smithfield workers for weeks.

The BBC has submitted a detailed list of workers’ questions and allegations to Smithfield, and they have not commented on the allegations made to them in individual cases.

“First and foremost, the health and safety of our employees and our communities is our top priority every day,” said the statement. “At the beginning of February, we set up in early March a series of rigorous and detailed procedures and protocols which follow the strict guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to effectively manage all potential COVID-19 cases in our operations . “

The epidemic has left people like Julia, whose mother suffers from underlying chronic health conditions, overwhelmed by the fear that her parents will put their lives at risk in order to keep their jobs.

“My parents are all I have. I have to think about not having them in my life, ”she said, her voice broken. “I want to share what’s going on so there is a history of what the company is not doing. “

Brief gray line of presentation

Ahmed first saw Neela on the first floor of Smithfield during one of his shifts. He loved her skin, she loved her laugh. When he started asking questions about her, Ahmed learned that they were both from the same village in Ethiopia and that they both spoke the same language, Oromo.

“Wow, I’m so excited. In my spare time, I keep looking for where she works, ”recalls Ahmed. “Immediately, I stop near his line. I say, “Hey, what’s up? “I tell her that she is beautiful. “

Ahmed took Neela to a trendy restaurant in New America. They went on a week-long vacation to Wisconsin Dells, a campy vacation destination in the Midwest known for its waterslides and hot springs. They fell in love and got married.

Illustration of two workers

Neela is now eight months pregnant with her first child. Although she left Smithfield in December, Ahmed continued to work during the epidemic, although he was terrified that he would infect his wife and unborn baby with the virus. Because Neela began to have difficulty walking during her third trimester, Ahmed needed to help her – they cannot isolate themselves from each other.

Ahmed said two of his friends in the factory tested positive. Then he started to show symptoms himself.

“Smithfield – they don’t care about the employees,” said Neela. “They only care about their money. “

Kooper Caraway, President of the AFL-CIO in Sioux Falls, said union leaders approached Smithfield management in early March to demand multiple measures to improve worker safety, including shifts and shifts. staggering lunch times, which can accommodate 500 workers at a time in the factory cafeteria. . He said they had also requested personal protective equipment such as masks and overcoats, temperature control at doors and at health stations.

“It was before anyone at the factory tested positive,” said Caraway. “Management dragged its feet, did not take workers’ demands seriously. “

Tim was a new employee on orientation when he heard of the first case of someone sitting next to him. But he says after the initial announcement, the company became very quiet.

“We haven’t really heard about the coronavirus epidemic anymore,” he said. “We thought it was good. On April 8, the South Dakota State Department of Health confirmed that there were 80 cases in the factory. Several employees told the BBC that they had discovered information in the media, not from Smithfield management.

“I discovered that some people had the virus in my department, but other colleagues told me,” said Julia’s mother Helen.

A temperature control station was erected in a white tent at the main entrance to the factory, but Reynoza and Caraway both said they were told that workers at high temperatures were allowed to enter the factory. factory anyway. According to Helen, if workers wanted to avoid temperature control, they could enter through a side door.

Smithfield introduced other changes, such as the construction of cardboard booths around table seats for lunch to create a barrier between workers, amazing shifts and the installation of hand sanitizers. But several workers have stated – and photos sent to the BBC seem to confirm – that personal protective equipment comes in the form of beard nets to wear on their faces, which do not protect suspended particles as would surgical mask or N95.

“I haven’t read anything from the CDC that says a hairnet on your face will do a lot of good,” said Caraway.

Smithfield did not respond to questions about beard nets or provide details about the PPE they made available to workers, writing instead that “given the stress on supply chains, we are working relentlessly to buy equipment and thermal scanning masks, both of which are in short supply. “

At a JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, 30 minutes from Sioux Falls, union representatives said their company had provided workers with “gloves, surgical masks, face shields, overcoats,” according to the Star Tribune. . They haven’t had a case yet. A spokesperson for Tyson Foods told the New York Times that its policy is to notify employees if they have been in contact with someone whose virus has been confirmed.

Mask in the hands of a person

In response, some employees began to bring their own masks to the factory. Others have started quarantining their families.

Kaleb, who has been with Smithfield for 12 years, told the BBC that for two weeks he has sealed himself in a room away from his wife, six-month-old daughter, and three-year-old son because he cannot can’t be sure he doesn’t bring the virus with him every day.

“My little boy you know, I close the door – he knocks on the door. “Hey, dad, do you want to go out?” I say, “Go with your mom”, “he said. ” I do not have a choice. What can I do? I want to try to save my family. “

If employees like Kaleb were to resign, they would be unemployed. Lawyers Hear Visa Holders Concerned That Even If They Had To Apply For Unemployment, They Could Be Considered “Public Fees” That Could Make Them Ineligible For Permanent Residence Under New Rule by the Trump administration last year. The law on aid, relief and economic security (care) against coronaviruses excludes anyone living in a mixed-status household with an undocumented family member.

“They’re not eligible for anything,” said Taneeza Islam, executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace and an immigration lawyer. “Their choice is between putting food on the table, going to work and being exposed. “

On April 9, with 80 confirmed cases, Smithfield released a statement that the plant would close for three days over the Easter weekend for a thorough cleanup and return to full capacity on Tuesday. “The company will suspend operations in a large part of the factory on April 11 and will close completely on April 12 and 13,” the company said.

But the BBC learned from interviews with workers and lawyers that Smithfield employees were always on the job for three days. Reynoza took videos showing the company’s parking lot full of cars and the workers entering the factory. Caraway said it later learned that the plant was operating at about 60 to 65 percent of its capacity, which means that hundreds of workers were still entering.

“I haven’t stopped working yet. I worked Friday, Saturday, Sunday and they want me to come back today, “Tim told the BBC on Monday after the Easter weekend. “I am terrified. Terrified. As if I’m at a loss for words. [But] I have four dependent children. This income is what gives me a roof over my head. “

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, who said he was impressed and satisfied with the mitigation efforts underway at Smithfield, admitted he was surprised when he learned that the plant was still partially open.

“There could have been more transparency on the measures they were taking,” he said. “The message to the public did not correspond to the real plan. “

Factory workers

Smithfield began offering employees a “responsibility bonus” of $ 500 if they finished their shift until the end of the month, which Islam has called a “bribe” for working in dangerous conditions.

Sara Telahun Birhe, organizer of Children of Smithfield, said her mother had previously decided that she would not return, but changed her mind when she heard about the bonus. “We are overwhelmed by the idea that she will only earn $ 500,” said Telahun Birhe.

In his statement, Smithfield wrote that the bonus is part of Smithfield’s #ThankAFoodWorker initiative, adding, “Employees who are absent from work due to COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis will receive the Bonus of responsibility. “

Partly due to incomplete closure and partly due to the growing number of cases leaving the factory, on April 11, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and TenHaken sent a joint letter to Smithfield calling for a ” 14 day break in operations. The next day, Smithfield management announced that it would comply – April 15, which means that there was still one day of work in a building.

Caraway said workers who entered last Tuesday received roughly double their normal wages, but there was no thorough cleanup. “They always enter a dirty building. “

Smithfield did not answer questions about when his factory in Sioux Falls underwent a thorough cleaning, writing that “our facilities are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected daily.”

Brief gray line of presentation

Julia’s two parents were scheduled to work at Smithfield on Tuesday, April 14, her last day of work before the 14-day closing. Helen started coughing on Saturday. The next day, as white fluffy snow flew over Sioux Falls, Julia insisted that her mother be tested. Helen tried to push her away saying that it was nothing.

“My mom really hates going to the doctor,” said Julia, who ultimately won the argument, and Helen went to a driving test center at the local hospital. They stuck a cotton swab on the back of each nostril and sent it home.

“If I had had Covid-19, I would have clearly obtained it from the factory,” she said. “This week I worked on three different floors. I ate in two different cafeterias. Just imagine every place I’ve been, touched inside this factory. I crossed the whole place.

On the Tuesday when they were scheduled to return to work, Julia’s parents woke up at 4:00 am as they normally do and called Smithfield to explain that they couldn’t come while waiting for Helen’s test result.

The call finally arrived later in the afternoon.

Julia spoke to the medical technician on her mother’s cell phone while her parents sat watching her face for a reaction. When Julia heard the words “positive for Covid-19”, she gave them a boost, which she meant to say “positive”. Helen and Juan misunderstood and tensed toward each other, a gesture of celebration that horrified Julia as she rushed to explain that no, Helen had the virus. Her father retired to the kitchen, where Julia caught sight of him trying to hold back the tears.

Two people hugging

The very day Helen received her results, the Smithfield plant issue became entirely political. Mayor TenHaken officially asked Governor Noem to issue an on-site shelter order for the surrounding counties of Sioux Fall and an isolation center. She denied both requests. Despite the large increase in the number of cases, Noem also continued to refuse to issue a shelter order in South Dakota, specifically claiming that such an order would not have prevented the Smithfield outbreak.

“It is absolutely false,” she said.

Instead, it approved the first state test for hydroxychloroquine, a drug that President Donald Trump has frequently cited as a possible treatment for coronavirus.

It was also the same day that Agustin Rodriguez Martinez, a calm and deeply religious man from El Salvador, died of the disease, alone in the hospital. He was 64 years old, the first known death linked to the Smithfield Foods epidemic. Reynoza, a friend of his for the past decade, said that he rarely complained about his grueling job of trimming the legs of pig carcasses and that he adored his wife Angelita, whom he had only known for a month before. their wedding. They have been together for 24 years.

“He was his prince. “

Angelita says she noticed that something was wrong when her husband started going home with lunch that she had packed it intact. He started experiencing symptoms on April 1, seven days after the first case of coronavirus was publicly reported at the factory. First there was the headache, then aches and chills. Then came shortness of breath. Angelita said that on his last day at the factory, he was feverishly cleaning the floors.

That Sunday, he couldn’t breathe.

Angelita brought him to the hospital, but was not allowed to accompany him. She learned from her pastor that he was put on ventilation almost immediately. He was there for 10 days before dying on April 14. “I took him to the hospital and left with nothing,” she said. “Now I have nothing. “

In addition to her grief, Angelita is also angry at Smithfield Food for not closing the plant earlier. “They care more about their money than about our lives,” she said in tears. “The owners don’t care about our pain. Mothers cry for their children. Women cry for their husbands. There are so many cases of viruses out there. “

The 73-year-old widow also said she had developed a cough.

Brief gray line of presentation

Two days after her mother’s positive coronavirus diagnosis, Julia woke up on the couch with a headache, cough and a dry throat. For the first time since the pandemic arrived in her life, she slept through the night but woke up more exhausted than ever.

After calling the Covid hotline and advising her that she was the daughter of a Smithfield worker, Julia put on her faux fur parka, disinfected the steering wheel and the gear change in her mother’s car, and s is directed to the drive-thru test site.

She was in a relatively good mood, despite the fact that almost everything she had tried to prevent when she informed the local newspaper almost a month ago had happened. The factory remained open. Her mother had the virus and her father was exposed. His city had become the epicenter of the pandemic in the state of South Dakota. People have died.

And now she could also be sick.

“I just want to cry,” she said as she made her way to the hospital.

Across the city, Smithfield workers and their families have had a similar experience. The same day, Julia’s mother got her diagnosis, Sara Telahun Birhe was relieved to discover that her mother’s Covid-19 test was negative. Neela and Ahmed received the call that he was infected, and the couple locked themselves up in separate rooms. They communicate by SMS. She makes him ginger tea and leaves it on the counter. He obsessively disinfects everything he touches.

Tim said he worked his last shift at Smithfield while experiencing symptoms on Tuesday, April 14, and went for a test the next day. He is still waiting for the results. He said that 20 people on his crew tested positive.

Around the same time that Julia began her test, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention entered the Smithfield plant, as well as representatives from local health services and the state. According to the South Dakota governor’s office, CDC officials were flown from Washington DC to “assess” what it would take to reopen the plant safely. Meanwhile, Smithfield announced the closure of two more of its facilities in Missouri and Wisconsin, where “a small number of employees … have tested positive for Covid-19”.

Meat factory worker

Although she arrived just 20 minutes after the test site opened, Julia was greeted by a line of 15 cars in front of her. “I hate queuing up,” she mumbled, sipping her bottle of water, occasionally emitting a soft cough.

After 30 minutes, she parked in front of what looked like a huge garage and a sign saying “Have an ID card and an insurance card handy.”

“OK, now I’m anxious,” she said. “I don’t want to do this. “

She and the car in front of her arrived in the bay, and a health worker wearing a full protective suit, a mask, gloves and a face shield plunged a long tampon into the right nostril of Julia, then on her left. She winced and shivered.

“Do you need a Kleenex? Asked the tester. “Yes, please,” said Julia.

With instructions to “go home, stay home, don’t go anywhere,” the gates of the bay opened and Julia withdrew to the sun. “It was so uncomfortable that I actually cried,” she said, parking in a parking space to catch up.

Julia sat behind the wheel and watched the cars enter and exit the parking lot. Elle a déploré le fait que maintenant que leur ménage avait une nouvelle infection potentielle, l’horloge de leur quarantaine devait redémarrer. « Je veux juste aller chez TJ Maxx », a-t-elle dit en souriant.

Après quelques minutes, il était temps de se tourner vers la maison, ses parents et la maison Helen et Juan travaillaient tant d’heures dans l’usine afin de se le permettre, où ils mettraient tous en quarantaine ensemble pendant au moins les 14 prochains jours.

« Maintenant, ce n’est qu’un jeu d’attente », a expliqué Julia. « Je suppose que je ne peux pas trop m’en souvenir. Mais je le ferai. “

Elle devrait avoir ses résultats dans cinq jours.

Les noms ont été changés.

Rapports supplémentaires d’Angélica M Casas; illustrations d’Emma Lynch

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