GARDEN CITY, Kansas — In mid-May, Finney County’s top public health physician sent an email to state health officials repeating worries she’d made clear a month earlier to her local colleagues.
Finney County Health Department Medical Director Lindsay Byrnes warned that the coronavirus outbreak at the local meatpacking plant continued to put workers there, and the surrounding community, at risk.
The factory-scale slaughterhouses that employ thousands of people — largely immigrants whose close-quarters jobs fuel the economy of southwest Kansas — had already become COVID-19 hotspots. Three workers in nearby Dodge City had died.
Byrnes, an internist and pediatrician with a master’s degree in public health, said the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in her hometown of Holcomb, Kansas, just outside Garden City, needed to do more.
“The numbers of infected and the pattern of spread makes it very clear that transmission was occurring there weeks ago, and due to the natural course of disease, is now evidenced in those who are sick, hospitalized and dying in my community,” Byrnes said in an email to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“Whatever the plant is doing now is too little too late,” the email continued, “but hopefully they will keep up their practices.”
Despite worker complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, massive outbreaks, deaths and input from a local doctor, Kansas meatpacking plants never shut down.
Months later, case numbers, clusters and deaths have continued to climb.
The Kansas News Service received OSHA logs through a Freedom of Information Act request. Through a Kansas Open Records Act request, the news service got emails between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and local health departments.
Those 780 emails showed that state officials played a role in keeping meatpacking plants open before President Donald Trump’s executive order mandating that plants continue operating.
In fact, the state’s guidelines said that even if workers had knowingly come in contact with someone who had the disease, they could still work as long as they were asymptomatic and took precautions such as wearing masks.
As cases of the virus began showing up in Kansas in March, the state’s agriculture department said in an email it had no plans to close packing plants.
“Our priority is to keep facilities functioning across the state so that the food supply chain is not interrupted,” spokeswoman Heather Landsdowne wrote. “At this point, we see no indication that these plants will be directed to shut down operations.”
In April, meatpacking plant employees filed complaints with OSHA about exposure to the coronavirus on the job in Lyon and Ford counties.
A complaint from an employee at Tyson Fresh Meats in Emporia said, “Employees are not protected from health hazards associated with the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” It continued, “the employer has not implemented all feasible engineering and administrative controls as outlined in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.”
By the end of the month, one worker in Dodge City had died from COVID-19. Within two weeks, two more workers at the meatpacking hub had died from the virus.
As of August 14, Kansas packing plants have reported 3,287 cases, 17 deaths and 16 cluster outbreaks. Plants are the largest source of outbreaks in the state. They’ve reported more than double the number of cases tied to long-term care facilities — the second largest source.
KDHE and Gov. Laura Kelly have publicly said Kansas didn’t have to close any plants. On a July 14 visit to
Brookover Feed Yard in Garden City, Kelly said the state took an “aggressive response” to outbreaks in packing plants.
“We called in the CDC. They brought in a SWAT team of contract tracers, testing and engineering types to figure out how we could set up our plants, so that they were safe to work in,” Kelly said.
The state also set up housing so workers could quarantine “to keep their families safe.”
Kelly was not available for an interview for this story. In an email, the governor’s spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said: “The guidance our state issued put restrictions in place, while minimizing risk within the work environment. This included requirements for engineering and administrative controls that would allow the plants to stay open.”
In fact, the plants installed plastic shields between workstations, started requiring masks and employee temperature checks.
When the CDC visited Cargill, two Tyson locations in Lyon and Finney counties and two National Beef locations in Ford and Seward counties in late April, about 2,500 workers were out. The missing employees had tested positive, were in quarantine or simply hadn’t shown up.
In a May interview with WBUR’s Here & Now, KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said the state had the power to shut down the plants.
“We have that statutory authority in the state of Kansas that can be done by a local health officer in that county, and we could override the local health officer and shut down the production in these packing plants,” Norman said. “That has not been necessary to do, fortunately.”
Norman was unavailable for an interview. KDHE spokeswoman Kristi Zears said in an email that the CDC released guidance and recommendations for packing plants shortly before the CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) visited plants.
“The visit was for technical assistance and not regulatory/inspection,” Zears said. “KDHE continues to work with meat packing plants, large and small, to make recommendations for controls they can put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities.”
On April 15, Byrnes sent an email to Finney County employees after the first case of the virus was found at Tyson. The county announced multiple cases and community spread at the plant on April 22.
“Given the experience of other communities with cases and subsequent large clusters located in meat packing plants, it seems obvious to me that we take aggressive action,” Byrnes wrote. “I am in favor of closing the plant to allow for broad testing and cleaning.”
In the same mid-April email, Byrnes wrote that she had discussed the situation with the state’s health agency, but an agency employee didn’t think a closure was necessary.
In an August interview, Byrnes said that’s how she felt at the time.
“Now four months later, I can probably say something different. I think at the time I felt very strongly. They needed to be shut down,” she said. “Temporarily, like I said, just try and get as many sick people out of there as we could and stop the transmission.”
Byrnes said that in her conversations with KDHE, the agency’s focus was on public health.
Now she isn’t sure that the plants should have been shut down.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We had a really large outbreak here … I feel 10 deaths is too many deaths. I do. It was a very significant hit to our community.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org