ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — An employee of a Missouri pork plant where hundreds of workers tested positive for the coronavirus has died of the illness.
The city of St. Joseph announced the death Wednesday night. The name of the man, a Buchanan County resident in his 40s, was not released. The man had underlying health conditions, according to a news release.
President Trump ordered meat processing plants to stay open during pandemic
The man worked at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, a city spokeswoman told the Kansas City Star. After nearly three dozen workers at the plant became infected last month, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services tested all asymptomatic workers at the plant from April 27 to May 1. The testing found that 412 of 2,367 workers tested positive despite showing no symptoms. Those workers should self-isolate for 10 days before returning to work, according to federal health guidelines.
The plant remains open, along with a mobile testing site operated by Northwest Health Services.
It is most likely that the workers who tested positive came in close contact with others who were experiencing symptoms like coughing, said Dr. Aamina Akhtar, Mercy Hospital South chief medical officer and an infectious disease specialist.
“In theory, someone who is asymptomatic could be shedding the virus, but that is a relatively low-risk group for transmission,” she said.
Still, wearing masks on the job is important because the virus can travel via droplets of saliva, Akhtar said.
The outbreaks of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants are of negligible risk to the public, she said.
Even if virus molecules landed on the meat or the packaging, “as things are processed and cooked, it wouldn’t put the population at risk,” Akhtar said.
Outbreaks have become common at other meat plants across the U.S., infecting thousands of workers, leading to the closure of some plants and prompting meat shortages. Several big grocery chains this week were restricting customer purchases of meat, and Wendy’s was unable to serve hamburgers at some locations.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson raises cattle at his home in Polk County
President Donald Trump issued an executive order last week requiring meatpacking plants to stay open. The order was widely seen as giving processors protection from liability for workers who become sick on the job, and it came after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of workers at a Smithfield pork processing plant in Milan, Missouri. The lawsuit, which accused Smithfield of not doing enough to protect workers from the coronavirus, was dismissed by a federal judge on Tuesday.
Missouri’s health department on Thursday reported 9,341 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 239 more than Wednesday. Deaths rose by 21 to a total of 417.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up after two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Because the virus is still circulating through the community, it’s important to maintain social distancing, mask wearing and hand-washing, even after stay-at-home orders are lifted, Akhtar said.
“The next two to three weeks will be telling, and will really give us an idea whether human actions will lead to an increased number of cases,” she said. “Our actions today will affect the community around us. It’s a big social responsibility and I hope we are ready.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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