The COVID-19 outbreak appears to have spread widely at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Walla Walla County, the largest beef processing operation in Washington, as partial results from employee screening show nearly 15% tested positive for the disease.
The plant, just outside the small town of Wallula, largely shut down last week amid a major outbreak that already had resulted in more than 125 workers coming down with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, including one who died. Since then, more than 1,100 other workers have been tested, and Walla Walla County officials said Thursday that 56 of the first 400 test results were positive.
County officials, in a statement, said more results will be released during the next few days as they -- and Tyson -- try to get a fuller picture of the spread of the virus in the plant.
Just when the plant, which employs more than 1,400 people, will reopen remains uncertain.
Tyson officials on Thursday did not respond to a Seattle Times request for comment.
Walla Walla County officials said that employees who tested negative are eligible to return to work. Those who test positive can return to work after seven symptom-free days, they said.
The officials said Tyson is free to resume operations if the screening -- once completed -- indicates there are enough infection-free workers to safely operate, and the company complies with county restrictions that include requiring masks on the job, temperature checks, screening for COVID-19 symptoms and installing plexiglass shields between workers on the processing lines.
But some union officials have called for stronger measures that include mandatory 6-foot spacing of line workers, along with plexiglass dividers, even if that means slowing the speed at which meat is processed and reduces daily output.
"Let me be clear, the best way to protect America's food supply, to keep these plants open, is to protect America's meatpacking workers," said Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, which represents some 250,000 meat- and poultry-plant workers, although not those in the Washington Tyson facility, which is nonunion.
The Wallula plant is one of a string of major U.S. beef and pork slaughter and processing facilities that have suspended operations in recent weeks amid coronavirus outbreaks that have infected thousands of workers.
The spread of the pandemic through these plants has caused big concerns in some communities, where local health districts have emerged as frontline regulators.
In Washington, Tyson critics have faulted the corporation for being too slow to adapt its safety precautions, and also have pressed county officials for earlier, stronger regulation of the plant operations during the pandemic. And a petition launched earlier this month has garnered more than 5,500 signatures calling for a 14-day shutdown of the Tyson plant.
Industry officials have been warning of serious disruptions to markets. On Sunday Tyson's chairman, John Tyson, wrote in newspaper ads that the "food supply chain is breaking" with a headline that declared a "delicate balance" between feeding the nation and "keeping our employees healthy."
On Monday, President Donald Trump waded into the debate over the meat-plant outbreaks with a controversial executive order that declared these facilities critical infrastructure, and appeared to try to override any actions taken by state or local officials to shut down a plant.
The order said such actions may threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency. It directs the secretary of agriculture, under the Defense Production Act, to "take all appropriate action" to keep the plants open and operating under federal safety guidance.
In the communities around the Wallula plant, the outbreak has created its own public health emergencies for families suddenly struggling to stay safe as they live with loved ones struggling to recover from COVID-19. The family of one worker -- 60-year-old J. Guadalupe Olivera Mendoza -- confirmed his April 20 death was due to complications from COVID-19.
As the outbreak intensified in April, Tyson's workforce at the Wallula plant dwindled.
Some workers were sick; others were sent home by management to quarantine after exposure to ill colleagues. Some stayed away from the plant because they were uneasy about the risks of contracting the disease, according to Jose Trinidad Corral, a 20-year veteran of the plant who was interviewed by The Seattle Times last week.
John Tyson, in the Sunday newspaper advertisements published in the Washington Post, The New York Times and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, defended the corporation's safety track record, saying the company has put numerous safety measures in place since January.
At the plant in Washington, Liz Jessee, emergency management director for Walla Walla County, said Tyson is picking up the cost for the testing of its workforce.
The testing began last Friday. One worker said that he worked a six-hour shift, then went to a cafeteria, where a nurse stuck a swab far up his nose -- a routine but uncomfortable procedure that made him feel like he was going to vomit.
Since then, the worker quarantined at his home in the Tri-Cities area and waited for results. " "I'm OK. I have no symptoms," he said. "But the fact that I'm inside here makes me feel uneasy."
The widespread testing of employees at Tyson's facility comes amid an expanding capacity in Washington to conduct such screenings. Health officials have said that many people who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic, yet may still be able to spread the disease.