Noem considers meeting Smithfield employees facing outbreak
By STEPHEN GROVES
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Thursday said she is considering meeting with employees of the Smithfield processing plant where a coronavirus outbreak infected 853 workers after advocacy organizations called on her to enforce safety measures at meatpacking plants.
The Republican governor has pushed for the plant’s reopening, saying she hopes that Smithfield will implement safety measures to prevent another outbreak. But she did not commit to enforcing safety measures in response to a letter from a group of organizations advocating for employees at the plant that employs about 3,700 people. The letter points out that racial minorities have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus infections.
“In a state where 85% of the population is white, 69% of positive COVID-19 cases have ravaged communities of color in South Dakota,” the letter said.
The Department of Health released data on COVID-19 cases by race earlier this week. The data indicated that 20% of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are black, and 18% are Hispanic. Asian people make up 12% of the cases.
The governor said she is still analyzing what is required by President Donald Trump’s order to keep meat processing plants open. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommendations to Smithfield like providing workers with plenty of masks and spacing them farther apart on production lines.
Secretary of Health Kim Malsam Rysdon said, “The CDC guidance around some of the workplace protections were really scripted as recommendations and considerations, and so even by the CDC’s standard they were not considered requirements.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents employees at Smithfield, called on governors to enforce those recommendations and even take them a step further to ensure workers can stay 6 feet apart while doing their jobs.
State epidemiologist Josh Clayton said he does not expect that infections of Smithfield employees will increase because the plant has been closed for two weeks. Two Smithfield employees have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, contributing to a total of 17 people who have died statewide.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Health officials on Thursday reported four deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 76 new cases. All the deaths came from Minnehaha County, which has had most of the infections in the state.
A total of 2,449 people have confirmed cases across the state. The actual number of COVID-19 infections is thought to be far higher than the number of confirmed because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
State officials also reported that 5,389 people made new claims for unemployment benefits last week. Labor and Regulation Secretary Marcia Hultman said that the number of claims they have seen in recent weeks are historic.