Rantoul Foods Covid-19 cases hold at 83; more reported at Vista Outdoor

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Pam Dempsey, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Medical staff prepare to test workers for Covid-19 at Rantoul Foods on Friday, May 8, 2020, as part of a two-day mass testing event. The meat processing plant had 55 confirmed cases as of Friday.

Coronavirus testing is once again optional for workers at one of Central Illinois’ largest meat processing plants as the number of confirmed cases hit 83 this week. 

Rantoul Foods, which processes 35 million pounds of meat a month, reported its first Covid-19 case April 25. Health inspectors made an on-site visit April 27 and found the plant to be more than 90% out of compliance with infection control practices. But the plant had been under scrutiny by health officials since March.

The plant is complying with health regulations now,  said Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in earlier interviews. 

The plant conducted a two-day mass testing event for workers on May 8 and 9 and were able to test 227 workers, plant management said in a press release.  Up until then, about 200 workers had been tested.  The plant has about 627 workers, management said earlier this month.

Now, however, plant management said it’s “complex” to track who among workers are being tested as local health officials only get all positive results. 

As a May 13 news release noted: “Testing is ongoing, and efforts are being made by community leaders as well as Rantoul Foods management to encourage employees to utilize one of the available test sites.”

Rantoul Foods, as well as Wal-Mart and the outdoor equpiment manufacturing plant, Vista Outdoor, are three of the top employers of the area’s Latino community, said Nelson Cuevas, founder of the Cultivadores Latino Center in Rantoul, in an interview May 8.  The center provides food, social services, counseling and child care – including emergency child care for plant workers. Rantoul Foods is providing pork to the center’s food pantry. 

Health department officials had to hire three different translators to help workers at the plant, including Spanish, Lingala (French Congolese dialect) and Q’anjob’al (Guatemala). 

The May 13 release noted that the Cultivadores Latino Center would be encouraging plant workers to get tested, although Cuevas said earlier many worried about the loss of income if a test found them positive for Covid-19. 

The release also noted that the “Illinois Pork Producers will be conducting an environmental virus survey of the plant and University of Illinois staff members will review the Rantoul Foods floor plan, and then will take samples over several visits at different locations throughout the plant. 

“These samples will be analyzed for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the information will be complied to identify any hot spots for the virus throughout the plant. If hot spots are identified through sample collection, this will give Rantoul Foods management more information on where to focus their increased hand sanitizer stations, equipment wipe down efforts and employee PPE.”

A spokeswoman for Rantoul Foods said Friday that the efforts are ongoing. 

Vista Outdoor, meanwhile, has reported seven cases of Covid-19 among its employees. It’s first case was reported April 3. Public Health officials visited the plant on Friday and made additional suggestions but had been working with plant officials since early April to prevent its spread. 

“You can’t prevent it from coming in but if you have stringent infection control, you can prevent a massive outbreak,” Pryde said. 

As of May 13, there have been at least 14,000 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 181 plants in 31 states, and at least 54 reported worker deaths at 30 plants in 18 states, according to reporting by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. 

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