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Shifting Guidance And Information Prompts Fear Among Workers At Triumph Plant

Preston Keres
U.S. Department of Agriculture
A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector shows Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue around the processing floor of the Triumph Foods pork processing facility in April of 2017.

Yordani Hernández is scared to go to work. The 45-year-old works at Triumph Foods, which had its first employee die from COVID-19 on Wednesday. Hernández was tested for COVID-19 last week, and while his test came back negative, he’s worried about working alongside others who tested positive. 

Hernandez says everyone is scared, but they are afraid to act because they fear reprisals. He says he was tested after having been in contact with one of the first three workers to test positive.

On Sunday he got an email from the plant saying he could return to work the next day. But Triumph also said workers who tested positive a week earlier could return as well if they hadn’t shown symptoms. That pushed Hernández’s wife, Maribel Toledo to start a petition, asking for the plant to close for a week. She’s concerned about her husband being exposed to the virus.

Credit Preston Keres / U.S. Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Triumph Foods employees work on a line at the St. Joseph plant in April of 2017.

She says the city of St. Joseph is in danger, and hopes the petition helps make that clear. By Tuesday evening, the change.org page had more than 850 signatures, and a number of comments from people saying they work at the plant and want it closed.

Francisco Alonso Bernal works on a line on the killing floor and signed the petition. He says part of the problem is workers weren’t isolated before they got their results.

He says that means workers who would test negative were working alongside others who would test positive without even knowing it. Bernal and other workers say this is particularly a problem in corridors and break rooms, and at shift changes, when people are in close contact.

After the original Sunday night email asking workers to return, on Monday, Triumph amended that saying workers who had tested positive late last month needed to wait until this Thursday to return, to allow 10 days since the positive test.

Triumph said it made the change based on new guidance they’d received from the state on Monday. It was based on new CDC guidelines that were announced on Sunday. The company waited for that state guidance rather than acting directly on the CDC guidance on Sunday.

At a press briefing Tuesday, State health director Randall Williams said his department held off on issuing the new recommendations on the state level to try to avoid confusion. “There was this concern that if we shifted the message, we’d given that message to them as late as Friday, on Sunday it would be confusing," Williams said.

But Williams says he feels the state needs to be nimble, and that’s why they updated the guidance on Monday. The guidance to return after 10 days applies to only asymptomatic workers, and reports from the state say 412 of the plant’s 2,800 employees tested positive without presenting symptoms. But workers have maintained not all of those tested were actually asymptomatic, and on Tuesday, Williams said upon further investigation, nearly half said they had actually shown symptoms.

The original guidance, telling workers to return on Monday, coincided with the city of St. Joseph reopening local businesses after a split decision by the city council.

“The city council then made some changes to what the city staff recommendations were and then city council voted on it and that’s how it passed," explained Debra Bradley, the director of the city's health department. She says her staff has been primarily working on contact tracing since the test results started coming in last week, something the state and neighboring counties have helped with.

“We brought in partners from the region, other health departments sent us some of their staff to help out. And the state department sent in two individuals for the weekend work," Bradley said. 

She says they currently have seven people working on cases in her department, but have had as many as 12. Critically, she says, one of the state health department’s staff spoke Spanish, the first language of a number of Triumph workers. Workers say the policies from Triumph on returning to work have only been issued in English, leaving them to use Google translate to keep up.

For Triumph employee Hernández, he says he doesn’t know when he’ll return to work.

He says he’s waiting to see what happens, but he knows even if there isn’t a change he’ll have to go back to work to pay the bills. In the meantime, Mosaic Medical Center in St. Joseph says it has admitted five COVID-19 cases, and a source at the hospital said they expect it’s just the beginning.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.