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COVID-19 cases surge in reopened JBS plant; causing worker death

01 May 2020

Confirmed coronavirus cases have more than doubled at a JBS beef facility in Colorado in “a number of days,” say union officials.

According to Reuters, a union official reported that a sixth employee died of the virus, highlighting the risks of US meat plants reopening.

The beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, started operating last Friday 24 April, after it was closed for about two weeks following a COVID-19 outbreak among workers.

JBS USA said in a statement that it was saddened by the death of its employee and that the person had not been to work since 25 March.

The company reopened the plant after multiple site visits and approval from health officials including the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the statement.

"The uptick in cases in a matter of days shows how serious this crisis is and the dangers that workers are facing every day just trying to do their jobs," Kim Cordova, leader of the local United Food and Commercial Workers International Union chapter, said in an e-mailed news release.

Confirmed cases among workers at the plant rose from 120 on Sunday to 245 on Wednesday evening, a union spokeswoman told Reuters, citing numbers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

JBS USA did not immediately respond to request for comment on the most recent worker death and rising cases in Colorado.

Earlier this week, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants operational during the pandemic to offset worries of meat shortages. The executive order was designed to give meat processing companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees become ill with coronavirus as a result of having to go to work.

Cordova reiterated workers' demands for protective equipment and testing, as well as stronger whistleblower laws and better health care.

"Our members share a common goal with JBS, federal, state and local authorities: to ensure that the plant continues to function to protect the food supply chain and to protect jobs, but it must be done in a way that protects the workers so no one else has to die,” she said.

Some 20 plants in North America have closed in recent weeks. US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said they would open in "days not weeks," in an interview on Fox News on Thursday. He said the department, which is overseeing Trump's order, is working to ensure workers' safety.

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