In early April, as coronavirus (COVID-19) cases were topping 300,000 in the United States and over 1 million around the world, meat processing facilities were starting to discover cases among employees. As the number of infected workers continued to rise, meat processing plants began to shut down to send sick employees home and test remaining workers not showing symptoms. Shutdowns also provided the time needed to conduct intense sanitation throughout facilities and implement new safety protocols including providing personal protective equipment (PPE), adding workstation dividers where possible and encouraging social distancing around the plants.

In early April, Salm Partners, a co-manufacturer of fully cooked sausage and hot dogs based in Denmark, Wis., also had its first case of coronavirus.

Upon learning of the positive case, Salm Partners immediately initiated its response protocol. The infected employee was quarantined, and any potentially exposed workers were sent home to self-quarantine. Affected areas and shared spaces were also thoroughly cleaned. By April 10, 10 employees at the plant (which employs more than 500 people) had been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“We were trying to figure out how to get a handle on it,” said Eric Salm, son of Salm Partners co-founder Chris Salm. “They had implemented every imaginable preventive control that the industry was talking about and doing at the time – masks and distancing and partitions and temperature sensors and symptom checks. We were keeping groups together to make sure that the mixing between different people was limited, so we could do contact tracing and all of that if there were cases. But that wasn’t really stopping the problem.

“I was talking to the CEO of Salm Partners, Keith Lindsey, and he said, ‘We’re doing everything that we can, but we still feel like we’re flying blind. We need to be able to test to know what we’re dealing with.’”

Test results

It was then that a light bulb went off in Eric Salm’s head – testing was the key.

“At that point, we knew that transmission of the disease, via asymptomatic carriers or pre-symptomatic carriers, was a real risk. And if you weren’t able to proactively identify those folks and isolate them, you were never going to be able to control spread in your workforce. Waiting for symptoms wasn’t going to work; you had to proactively test.”

Salm immediately started developing a plan to test all the employees at Salm Partners. On April 24, the company set up voluntary testing for all employees at its Denmark location.

“This is the right thing to do for our partners,” Lindsey said at the time of the testing. “Some individuals may not realize they are carrying COVID-19 because they don’t show any symptoms, so we feel this is the right move to protect the health of our partners, their families, and the nation’s food supply.

“We are an essential industry and we need to keep our workforce healthy to continue producing products to feed the nation. Our primary mission is to create a safe environment for our partners,” he said.

The company brought on a medical director, sourced the testing kits and arranged with one of the leading diagnostic laboratories in the country to test the kits. Under Salm’s guidance, the company built mobile sampling stations – converting trailers into sampling stations where the individuals administering the tests stayed in the trailers and those being tested would walk up to a closed window to receive the test (this method reduced the need for PPE, at a time when it was very hard to obtain).

On April 29, the company released results from its days of testing. Out of 346 tests, there were 17 new cases of COVID-19 discovered, or 5% of total tests – all asymptomatic cases. With these new results, Salm Partners had 35 partners test positive out of its 600 total employees (including temporary workers).

The company now tests every two weeks, all with the goal of identification and isolation of positive cases.

“We also wanted to make the employees feel like they were safer at work,” Salm said. “There was a mantra in the state of Wisconsin – ‘safer at home.’ But the meat industry plays a critical role in the supply chain, so people couldn’t necessarily stay at home in order to stay safe – and yet people kept being told you’re ‘safer at home.’ So, it was up to us to make it so they were ‘safer at work’ – and we felt the way to confidently do that was through our preventive procedures, and testing.”

CoVigilance helps processing plants design testing procedures that make sense for the specific company.

Word of mouth

As soon as Salm Partners started developing and implementing its testing program, word got out. Companies were calling to find out what Salm Partners was doing and if they could provide advice and assistance.

Another light bulb went off in Salm’s head. Why not share their knowledge and expertise with other companies who are also struggling to stay ahead of the coronavirus pandemic?

“There were other solutions out there, but most weren’t compatible with how plants operate – or they were just too expensive and they were untenable for the meat industry,” Salm said. “It became clear that we could probably start a business around this and tailor it to businesses similar to ours. We could focus on the food industry, focus on the meat industry, and do whatever we could to help them through this challenge that we’re all facing.”

It was at that time that CoVigilance was created. The company is led by Salm as chief executive officer, alongside his father Chris Salm as chief business development officer, Aloys Tauscheck, PhD, as medical director and Jeff Grider as chief operations officer.

CoVigilance was formed to “coordinate high-volume COVID-19 testing solutions.” In addition, the company offers analysis and assistance in integrating test results into “an effective, data-driven workforce management plan.”

“However, early on, we made the call that we weren’t here to make a bunch of money – we were here to help make testing more available,” Salm said.

CoVigilance offers on-site, full-service testing to clients in Wisconsin. In these cases, mobile trailers might be used to help conduct testing outside the facilities.

Early in the process, when Salm Partners was conducting its own testing, Salm learned that there were FDA emergency use authorizations available for self-sampling. It was unnecessary for testing to be conducted by medical professionals. Instead, the people being tested could swab their own noses while being observed by a trained professional. That was one of the many “tricks” Salm Partners learned during its early stages of testing, and one of many CoVigilance incorporated into its business model to share with the companies it worked with.

“We figured out that we had found the testing solution. We knew the labs that were running diagnostics. We knew the supply chain for the swabs and the test kits,” Salm said. “So, we decided it was our job to coordinate all those pieces and provide those elements as a tool for other plants to use when conducting their own testing program.”

While CoVigilance does offer full-service testing in Wisconsin, the company is more likely to provide the tools and training necessary for the company to administer the testing itself – from testing supplies, lab logistics, testing protocols, test instructions and follow-up guidelines. The company will also train and certify test observers for other companies so they can oversee their own in-house swab testing.

“We train them and make it so it’s their process, it’s their execution. They are working through it with their own people and staff,” Salm said. “We’re coordinating the logistics on the back end. We walk through the process flow with them. We discuss the layout of their testing, the time they’re doing it, the people who are doing it and the flow of their people through the process.

“We walk them through all the steps, so they know what to do as they prepare for the day of testing and go through the day of testing. Then after results come in, we debrief their team and provide whatever scientific basis of understanding they need to help analyze their results,” Salm said.

CoVigilance also offers consultant services to help companies navigate how the changing coronavirus environment is impacting their business.

“Information regarding the virus changes daily, and developing an informed, strategic workforce management plan is challenging,” according to the company’s website. “CoVigilance will provide ongoing consultative services for your leadership team to develop detailed, data-driven protocols to protect your workforce and your business that incorporates the flexibility required by this rapidly changing environment.”

Salm Partners is still testing on a two- to three-week frequency to ensure more asymptomatic cases aren’t hiding in the plant. The company is proud it never had to shut down its operations.

“We believe that without testing that would have been a different story,” Salm said. “Salm Partners never had to shut down while other large meat plants in the area had to. We were able to get onto testing faster and more efficiently than those other companies did, and keep our plants running.”

Salm believes testing could be the key to managing the virus – that isn’t going away anytime soon – both for the meat industry and throughout the supply chain.

“There’s been a hesitancy to mandate testing, but I’ve seen the benefit of testing in an outbreak scenario,” he said. “Testing is available, and it’s easy to implement. It strikes me that we can and should take a more aggressive stance on testing in the meat industry.”