A town close to Kansas City becomes a Covid-19 hotspot
Food processing plants have become one of the main sources of outbreaks of Covid-19, the new coronavirus that is cornering the world. According to the report presented this Friday by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 25% of Covid19 cases are located there.
State and local government actions have made a difference in the spread of the virus, in some areas they have been clear and have forced companies to shut down, disinfect and control the outbreak, as well as providing biosecurity equipment to employees, thus making it clear that the risk is latent, but trying to minimize it.
In other areas the story has been different: local governments have been ambiguous, have left it up to state governments to decide what happens and have not informed the people, despite knowing the consequences of their decisions.
An example of this is what has recently happened in Saint Joseph, Missouri. This town is part of a county of some 88,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Kansas City. There is a pork processing plant and several meat packing plants.
Triumph Foods is one of them. This company has a little more than 2,700 direct workers. When the Covid-19 arrived at their facilities, there had already been cases in other plants along the country which, because they did not take the necessary caution, had already left numerous infected and dead.
However, the authorities did not clearly inform the community of what was happening. Within the facilities, the airtightness – both of the authorities and of the company itself – led to a number of rumors that did not help to solve the situation.
St. Joseph’s is no different from other areas in the United States where there is a marked racial disintegration. According to census data, by 2018, 9.7% of the population living in the city was Hispanic or belonged to two racial groups, the vast majority of which were not fluent in English and worked in the meat processing companies mentioned above. Therefore, this is the most affected group by the Covid-19.
As a consequence, although they showed through social networks their concern, and even were part of the news in Spanish at a national and international level, these complaints did not reach the local authorities. NTN24 journalist Alejandro Rincón spoke to the city’s Health Director, who assured him she did not understand what controversy he was talking about.
Part of the Te Lo Cuento News team conducted a survey, where most people expressed that it was very difficult to receive medical information about Covid-19 if you do not speak English. Our team, in the days prior to the NTN24 interview, had contacted the Health Department and the City Hospital to ask for their opinion and received no response.
But while this was happening to the workers in the food processing plants, the situation was quite different in the rest of the city, despite being instructed to stay at home.
Even the community was under order of quarantine, they were still leading a fairly normal life compared to other areas of the country; as reflected in an email by councilman PJ Kovac, who even expressed his disagreement with maintaining the social distance, as many of the shops that were open in the city looked completely crowded.
While this was happening to most of the city’s residents, the other group was expressing concern about what they knew could happen. However, the local authorities made no effort to hear first-hand from the workers, a large group of whom are city residents and do not speak English.
In an interview we conducted with councilman Brian Myers, we consulted him on this particular point: the difficulties of communication. He told us that the city was aware of the situation and that they were working with Triumph Foods’ translators to properly communicate with the people affected. He also indicated that the local government does not have translators on staff.
This would explain why the city has not been able to find out what was going on internally, as workers could not file complaints for fear of dismissal, as long as the city administration continued to work with the translators paid by the company and connected to the company’s Human Resources Department.
Debra Bradley, Director of Health for the City of St. Joseph, expressed her concern in several emails. In an internal communication with the city’s mayor on April 22, is stated her claim about a message sent to the Missouri Director of Health, in order to arrange for more testing for the city, due to the significant increase in contact-infected people.
Despite expressing her concern about the situation through emails, she never did so publicly. Her speech to the outside was completely different. She claims that the city’s response has been quite good.
The first cases occurred in a given shift
These first cases were detected on a specific schedule of the processing plant workers. However, this information was never made public either internally or externally. In the text is stated that the Health Department decided to wait and even give Triumph Foods a chance.
They thought of closing it down
The possible closing of the plant is mentioned in several emails, in which the Mayor of the city asks the Director of Health, who has the authority to close it; making it clear that the authority would fall on the state health department. Unlike other counties in the country, the Mayor did not publicly express his desire for this to happen, nor explain that it was the Missouri Department of Health that had the last word on this issue.
We tried to get an interview with the Mayor’s office to ask him about this and also about the control they have over the other plants, where at the time of publishing this article there are infected people. They declined the invitation, but provided us with the following statement:
“Our goal is to ensure the health and safety of our residents as well as the health of our economy, and the decisions we make take both into consideration. Guidelines and protocols are in place to identify positive COVID-19 cases and conduct contact tracing. We hope to add resources to aid in our efforts with contact tracing. Our health department works closely with the state to monitor COVID-19 in our community and watch for hot spots and clusters that may develop and will take action accordingly. We are monitoring the numbers and paying close attention to the number of hospitalizations as we move forward.” (Mayor Bill McMurray).
The city had no test capacity
By April 21, with a large outbreak on the doorstep, the city had no testing capacity. This is evidenced by an email from St. Joseph’s Health Director, Debra Bradley.
There she claims that they did not have the capacity to test for the new coronavirus. Despite this, the Missouri Department of Health did not close the Triumph Foods plant.
NBC displayed graphics showing that St. Joseph’s has become the third largest red dot in the country for the week of May 7, due to the number of infections. In the state, it is the second most infected county per capita in Missouri, followed by Salines, a smaller population which houses another meat processing plant.
While the silence of the authorities remains constant, the local KQ2 TV channel gathered information from the Missouri Department of Health, pointing that the total number of the first group tested in Triumph Foods was 490 workers, approximately 17% of the employees.
This number is known two weeks after the first report, in which 412 people tested positive for Covid-19 among the 2,367 workers tested at the plant between April 27 and May 1. Since that time, more workers have become ill and both the Health Department and the plant are keeping silence on the total number of cases, which has undoubtedly continued to change.
Not all of the positive cases are residents of Buchanan County or Missouri, which has meant that decisions made in this county affect not only St. Joseph City, but also the Kansas City-Missouri and Kansas City-Kansas areas.
Lack of information
There have been complaints from citizens about the lack of information; however, it seems that the decision of not to provide information would come from the St. Joseph’s Director of Health.
In a communication issued on April 1, the Director expressed her refusal to show daily data, assuring that this could give a false illusion of low danger and that citizens should stay in their homes. Unlike other cities, the health department at St. Joseph’s does not deliver all the figures on a daily basis. The daily number of people in the ICU, the number of daily tests provided by all entities, the recovery rate, as well as ethnicity and race are not known. Te Lo Cuento News has asked for race and ethnicity data repeatedly and never gets a response.
However, the international news network NTN24 took the opportunity to ask for it during an interview with the Health Director and received as an answer that, according to Bradley, the health department does not follow up on this data; since they treat everyone equally in St. Joseph.
Other health departments, on the contrary, have shown concern about having the data in the clearest possible way. It must be noted that in health crises, data are the best used resources for decision making, resource management, and even crisis response. According to Bradley’s response, St. Joseph does not have clear data like other cities in the country and in the emails reviewed by our team, there is no evidence of a daily delivery to the Mayor, the City Manager or the Council members.
Nor is a daily report given to the city on how many cases are recovered, how many people are hospitalized, how many are in intensive care units, and how many are on ventilators.
A city disconnected from those affected
Repeatedly, when there were few cases, workers expressed on social networks the lack of action by the authorities. Then the first batch of results was received, revealing that the errors have led to widespread infection.
Given the lack of official and local response, a group of workers and family members began an online collection of signatures that now exceeds four thousand, asking for a week-long shutdown to disinfect the plant, a new mass test and to prevent people who tested positive from entering the plant. This mistake was made during the first test and the Director of Health recognized it as a failure, although she did not want to respond directly. A mistake that, without a doubt, was responsible for many more cases of that outbreak.
To date, they have received no response from the authorities. Complaints about the data are increasing, not only from immigrant communities but from city residents.
Possible next outbreak
There are other plants with cases in the city, Tyson is one of them. Te Lo Cuento News was able to verify that there were new cases within this facility. Although the Missouri Department of Health has stated that having two cases in the same plant would immediately trigger mass testing, this has not happened until now for the workers. We contacted Tyson representatives, who neither denied nor accepted the situation, but said they were working to maintain security at their facility.
The assertion was confirmed by one worker, who reported that the measures they have taken have been adequate and that the workers had been provided with masks for when they are off the premises.
Neither the City of St. Joseph nor the Missouri Department of Health responded to our emails.
A different situation has been experienced by workers at a sausage plant in Holton, Kansas, one hour and 30 minutes from St. Joseph. As soon as the first cases were found there, the plant was closed, workers were tested, more cases were obtained, and it is still closed.