2 Deaths, More Than 200 Infections in Virus Outbreak at San Joaquin Valley Poultry Plant

In this 2013 image, a package of Foster Farms chicken is for sale in a cooler at a grocery store in the Marin County town of San Anselmo.  (Justin Sullivan'Getty Images)

State workplace safety officials are investigating conditions at a Foster Farms poultry processing plant in Merced County where 217 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, with at least two dying of complications of COVID-19.

Mayor Gurpal Samra of Livingston, a town of 15,000 that’s home to the Foster Farms facility, said Thursday that county health officials have informed him that 217 plant workers have tested positive for the virus. That’s nearly triple the number reported July 31.

The mayor said that at least two workers have died during the outbreak.

Foster Farms did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the situation at the plant, which has prompted an investigation by Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency.

The Merced County Department of Public Health would not confirm the number of cases at the plant, citing federal health privacy laws.

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"The Merced County Department of Public Health continues to work with Foster Farms and several other businesses to help slow the spread of COVID-19," a county public information officer wrote in an email.

Department of Industrial Relations spokesman Frank Polizzi said Cal/OSHA opened a probe into the plant late last month after receiving notice that a worker had died from complications related to COVID-19. The agency is required to look into death or serious injury.

Polizzi said both Cal/OSHA and officials with the county health department visited Foster Farms last week, and that the investigation will include “a detailed review of the employer’s safety policies to identify and correct violations, including a review of their COVID-19 infection prevention procedures.”

Inspectors have up to six months to issue citations and are likely to return to Foster Farms, Polizzi said. When the inspection is complete, it may result in citations with monetary penalties.

The outbreak at the plant is part of a spike in COVID-19 cases throughout Merced County and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. Livingston had recorded 700 positive cases through Thursday. With the equivalent of about one in 20 residents testing positive, the town has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the state.

The Merced County Department of Public Health lists a total of 25 outbreaks countywide, including episodes at two other food facilities — a cheese plant and an almond processor.

Mayor Samra said the county health agency has issued a series of directives to Foster Farms and that county officials are expected to visit the plant Monday to ensure the company is complying.

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"One of the main items in the directive is if, because they have multiple buildings, anybody tests positive in any building, they need to test all employees in that building," Samra said. He added that "any new employees must have tested negative within 24 to 48 hours."

Plant workers have reported reduced operations at the plant due to a lack of workers. Others say they have been kept in the dark about the outbreak.

One employee, who asked not to be named for fear she could lose her job, said workers “are all afraid of getting infected.”

“Some stop going to work because they’re afraid, or because they don’t feel well,” she said. “That’s what we don’t really know — how many people are infected.”

Samra said he has received many phone calls and emails from plant employees about the outbreak.

"They say they should just shut it down, deep clean, sanitize it all, test everybody, then bring everybody back. That's what they want," Samra said.

Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers, which represents about 2,000 workers at the plant, said some employees are staying away from the plant out of fear of COVID-19 and that the shortage of workers has impacted operations at the plant. But he said no area of the plant has been unable to operate because of absent workers.

Grossman said the union knows of two workers who had died.

The UFW has urged the county health department to have Foster Farms provide free testing to all plant workers every two weeks, Grossman said. Testing of 600 workers in the chicken packaging area of the plant began Wednesday, he said.

Though Foster Farms has not responded to questions about the situation at the plant, it has posted a summary of the steps it's taking to safeguard worker health. The company says those measures include increasing daily sanitation and personal hygiene checks throughout the company's facilities, installing partitions in work spaces and break rooms and monitoring employees for fever and other symptoms of COVID-19.

"I think that they’re trying," Grossman said. "It’s a big challenge. It’s a huge burden when the community in which you’re located is experiencing such pervasive spread, community-wide spread, of the disease. It’s inevitable that when the community is seeing such widespread contagion, that a company this large where people are working indoors in close quarters that people are going to get sick.”

The situation at the plant has led to discussion among local officials about whether the plant could be shut down if the outbreak there worsens.

“We don’t have the authority in Livingston to just walk into Foster Farms. We don’t have that. Only Cal/OSHA and the county does. We do not,” Mayor Samra said.

Samra said officials with the county health department are writing new procedures for how to handle the outbreak as they go.

"There are no guidelines, no books, no manuals, on how to deal with this anywhere at the state level. Even the federal government is in disarray. So Merced County Health, who’s never had to deal with this either, is trying to find the best way to work with it and they’re literally writing checks and procedures that the state’s also looking at because the state doesn’t have anything," Samra said.

"They’re literally writing the book as they go along. They said, I know it looks all over the place, but no one has any procedures," he said.

Local health officials said they first became aware of the outbreak at Foster Farms in mid-June. In a phone interview with KQED in July, Merced County Health Officer Dr. Salvador Sandoval said he discussed with a Foster Farms official various options should the outbreak at the plant get “out of hand.”

Sandoval said the official pointed to President Trump’s April executive order under the Defense Production Act.

“Some of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines have been that, if people are positive, or have been exposed to someone that's positive on the line at a certain point, because of the Defense Production Act, that they might continue to work and not be quarantined, because of ... to maintain production,” Sandoval said.

Ira Brill, Foster Farms' communications chief, disputed Sandoval's characterization through a company PR representative.

Brill "wanted to inform you that the information as described ... is not accurate and is taken out of context. The company will not participate further," Lorna Bush of San Francisco's Fineman PR said in a July 21 email.

On June 29, a team from the Merced County Department of Public Health did a walkthrough of the plant, Sandoval said. During the site visit, he said, county officials noticed several "problem areas." One was the length of plexiglass in the break rooms, which county officials did not consider to be extensive enough, he said.

County officials recommended that all line workers at the plant be tested for coronavirus, Sandoval said. But plant officials said blanket testing could be difficult because some workers are temporary.

"That has to be taken into account — how that's going to be managed," Sandoval said.

The health officer said he was told that if the Livingston plant closed, Foster Farms would have to consider slaughtering 2 million chickens per week. Sandoval said he suggested freezing the chickens, but was told that the plant prides itself on having fresh chicken and that that is an important part of the company’s ability to compete with companies in other states.

"We're not surprised at the large numbers of cases we're hearing," said Deep Singh, executive director of the Jakara Movement, a Sikh community organizing group.

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"Of course we're still alarmed, we're in shock, about the toll that takes on communities, on families and of course on individuals. We've been trying to have this conversation with Foster Farms since March. We really need an all hands-on approach to find a solution together, because otherwise this problem is just going to continue getting larger and affect more and more families in the area."