SPRINGDALE, ARK. – After an April 21 announcement by the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health (DCH) that it would require the 1,400-plus employees of the Pasco, Washington-based Tyson Fresh Meats plant be tested for the coronavirus (COVID-19), Tyson Foods Inc. announced on April 23 that production at the facility would be temporarily suspended. The DCH said it has been in daily contact with Tyson officials regarding the situation since April 6, and to date, more than 90 employees at the plant had tested positive for the virus. DCH officials conducted a site visit at the Pasco plant on April 13. Most of the people testing positive live in nearby Benton County or Franklin County, while eight of the workers were identified as residents of Walla Walla County.

Testing of all workers is to take place within a week, and they are required to self-quarantine at home until test results have been determined.

“This may require the plant to close for a day or two, depending on when the testing can take place and how long it takes to get results back,” said Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s DCH.

Tyson said employees will continue to be compensated while waiting for test results and resuming operations will depend largely on test results.

“We’re working with local health officials to bring the plant back to full operation as soon as we believe it to be safe,” said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, the pork and beef processing subsidiary of Tyson Foods. “Unfortunately, the closure will mean reduced food supplies and presents problems to farmers who have no place to take their livestock. It’s a complicated situation across the supply chain.”

With the cases in the area climbing over the past few weeks, Debolt said the counties in the area are looking forward to the ability to test more residents.

“Quickly identifying cases, getting them isolated, along with their household members, and quarantining their close contacts is critical to our public health response to COVID-19,” DeBolt said. “We hope to see additional testing capacity within our community in weeks to come.”

Stouffer added, “We’ve taken both of our responsibilities to continue feeding the nation and keeping our team members safe and healthy seriously. That’s why we’ve been focused on COVID-19 since January when we first formed a company coronavirus task force. We’ve since implemented numerous measures to protect workers and, at times, have gone beyond CDC guidance.

“We’ve also worked with the local health department on more mitigation efforts and have accommodated all its recommendations for protective measures, which exceeded CDC guidelines. Despite these efforts, the combination of worker absenteeism and COVID-19 case and community concerns has resulted in a collective decision to close and test all team members.” 

The company announced on April 22 that its Logansport, Ind.-based pork plant would close to allow for its more than 2,200 workers to be tested. Tyson also announced this past week that it had indefinitely closed its Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant and planned to test its 2,800 employees for the virus.