South Side meat packing plant employees call for investigation after 21 COVID-19 cases confirmed

CHICAGO (WLS) -- With 21 coronavirus cases confirmed at a meat packing plant on Chicago's South Side, employees are demanding more equipment to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Workers at the nearly century-old Rose Packing are worried for their health and safety.

"They need to shut down and clean and sterilize, make sure they do not have other employees sick," said a family spokesperson for two Rose Packing employees.

Both employees said they're quarantined after contracting COVID-19. They asked not to be identified out of fear of repercussions.

RELATED: COVID-19 outbreak confirmed at South side meat packing plant

One of the employees, a man in his late 50s, said he collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital after falling ill with the deadly virus.

"Fever, he could not breathe, we honestly thought at first it was like a stroke," the spokesperson said.

Rose Packing has confirmed 21 cases of COVID-19 out of more than 500 employees. But people who work there say the numbers are much higher.

"People notice that there are employees missing, you know?" the spokesperson said.

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Rose Packing said they're using strict protocol to clean the facility every night, and handing out personal protective equipment to their employees. But those who spoke to ABC7 said they work close together while packaging and cutting meat, and don't have proper equipment.

"No face masks. They were giving them hair nets and those are like thin and cheap," the spokesperson said.

The outbreak, just one of several at food processing plants across the country, is leading to less production and even plant closures.

On Chicago's South Side, employees just want to be sure they are safe while doing their work.

"The health department - OSHA- they need to shut down and clean, because they deal with meat on a daily basis," the spokesperson said. "If these employees are sick, they are handling packages and they are not giving them proper equipment."

Employees are asking for a formal investigation to make sure everything is up to protocol at the facility.

Read Rose Packing's full statement below:

For over 95 years, Rose Packing has been producing the highest quality products for domestic and international markets. Our products include value-added pork, beef, turkey and chicken with focus on breakfast meats and sausages.

As part of our nation's essential critical infrastructure, all food production facilities have a special responsibility to maintain our country's food supply during this national emergency. The science of COVID-19, along with information from the USDA and FDA, tells us that the virus that causes COVID-19 is not spread through the food supply. Therefore, the meat that we purchase does not present any risk of transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19. Public health authorities agree that COVID-19 is most commonly spread through person-to-person contact in the community.

In order to best ensure the well-being of Rose Packing team members, starting in mid-March, 2020, we implemented programs, procedures and practices that conform to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Our primary commitment continues to be to meet or exceed the rapidly evolving CDC and IDPH guidance for COVID-19 in order to help protect our team members and their families.

The number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the Chicago metropolitan area has increased recently and there appears to be significant community transmission of the virus in the area. Public health authorities have warned our community to expect a surge in positive cases of COVID-19 and this is something that many businesses, including ours, have started to experience. Despite the many precautionary measures that we have taken in recent weeks, we have been informed that 30 of the more than 500 team members at our Major Avenue facility in Chicago have tested positive for COVID-19. All of these team members are now under self-quarantine at home or are under medical care.

We first initiated our COVID-19 response plan on March 12, 2020. Upon learning of team members testing positive, we immediately activated our COVID-19 investigation plan, which aligns with the CDC and IDPH guidelines. Out of an abundance of caution, and in conformance with those guidelines, we identified other team members who may have been in close contact with those team members, so that we could inform them, and then determine their work status under the most current CDC guidelines.

To provide us the opportunity to implement additional COVID-19 prevention activities, we suspended production operations at the plant after the second shift on Friday evening, April 17, 2020, and we will not reopen until we have temperature monitoring in place for all team members. We will also institute a brief exposure history questionnaire to everyone who enters the plant. We believe these measures will provide meaningful and additional levels of protection for each and every team member. We ordered and paid for the necessary temperature-monitoring devices several weeks ago, and we anticipate their delivery in the very near future. We will take this opportunity to conduct an even deeper cleaning of all areas of the Major Avenue facility with application of EPA registered sanitizers that are effective against the virus that causes COVID-19.

Federal government regulations have long required food production facilities to operate under strict requirements for cleaning and sanitation. All team members are required to wash their hands multiple times per shift and wear clean outer clothing and head coverings as part of our long-standing, rigorous
food sanitation procedures. Each evening, we conduct a full sanitation cycle in each of our production areas, which includes:

-Chemical foaming of equipment, walls, and ceilings
- Manual scrubbing of equipment surfaces
-A full wash down to remove all food-grade cleaning chemicals
-Collection of microbiological monitoring samples to verify cleanliness
-A thorough, final, visual inspection of rooms and equipment
- A final sanitization of all equipment prior to the beginning of operations

The safety and well-being of our team members is our top priority. We have proactively implemented prevention activities throughout the plant that are centered on protecting our team members. A number of other team-member-protective measures have already been implemented in the facility:

-Starting March 16, 2020, implemented continuous cleaning and disinfection of common areas and surfaces, including breakrooms, restrooms, offices, doorknobs, vending machines, handrails and desks, using only EPA registered sanitizers effective against the COVID-19 virus
- Staggered break times to further enhance social distancing and added more break areas to facilitate spacing
-Reinforced with all team members the importance of proper hand hygiene, refraining from touching the face and recognition of COVID-19 symptoms
- Beginning April 7, 2020, deployed face coverings for all team members, and on April 10, 2020, provided face shields for production line workers
- Installed additional hands-free sanitizing stations to foster additional application by team members
- Developed an in-depth, CDC-guided close contact investigation process
-Developed a COVID-19-related paid leave program

When any team member notifies us that they have tested positive for COVID-19, our HR staff immediately follows up with other team members who may have been in close contact with them, so that we can then determine their work status under the most current CDC guidelines. Any team members with a positive test result or diagnosis of COVID-19, and close contacts under the CDC guidance, are placed on paid leave for 14-days to self-quarantine.
Our team members play an important role in feeding our country. We share a collective responsibility to take care of each other in these trying times. We will continue to make every effort to maintain a safe environment to keep our team members healthy, as we continue to monitor the situation closely, be led by science and the facts, and support our team members.
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