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State's mills, factories ramp up efforts to rein in virus; building site, 7 employers report workplace flare-ups

by Andy Davis, Joseph Flaherty | May 21, 2020 at 6:57 a.m.
The Boar's Head facility in Forrest City, Ark. is shown in this photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Joseph Flaherty)

Employees have donned masks at mills operated by Riceland Foods, poultry companies are checking temperatures as people enter, and a Frito-Lay facility in Jonesboro has deep-cleaned areas where infected employees worked, as businesses in Arkansas take measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to company representatives.

Seven employers and one construction project had reported five or more active cases of covid-19 in the workplace as of Tuesday, according to the most recent figures provided by Arkansas Department of Health spokeswoman Meg Mirivel.

At Riceland Foods, an agricultural marketing cooperative, 10 employees at the cooperative's Jonesboro rice mill and one employee at a mill in Stuttgart have tested positive, according to Kevin McGilton, Riceland's vice president of government affairs.

McGilton said Wednesday that Riceland's first positive case occurred in Stuttgart during the week of April 13, with subsequent cases "scattered over the weeks."

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He said masks are now mandatory for all employees in Riceland facilities. Temperature screenings also are being conducted before employees enter the building.

The employees who tested positive had passed the temperature screening, McGilton said.

"It's one of those things where you do all you can do and still have it," he said.

Riceland has worked to trace the contacts of the infected employees, McGilton said. Employees who were exposed have been sent home to quarantine for 14 days and are asked to get tested.

There are 250-300 employees at the Jonesboro rice mill, which is the size of several city blocks, according to McGilton.

The Jonesboro facility has not shut down entirely since the start of the covid-19 outbreak, he said, but parts of the facility have been closed for several hours at a time for cleaning if the infected employees were in the area.

A total of 35 individuals have tested positive at the Belleville Boot Co. facility in Forrest City, according to the Department of Health. Six of them have reportedly recovered.

Belleville, which manufactures boots for the U.S. military, did not return telephone or email messages seeking comment.

The Department of Health reported 14 active covid-19 cases at Nebo Poultry locations in Dardanelle and Russellville.

Nebo Poultry's general manager Troy Whitlow confirmed Tuesday that at least one employee had tested positive for covid-19, but he declined to say where the employee works and would not divulge the total number of positive cases at the company. The company vaccinates poultry, Whitlow said.

At a Frito-Lay facility in Jonesboro, the Department of Health lists six employees as active covid-19 cases and four recovered.

"We can confirm a limited number of employees at our Jonesboro, Ark., Frito-Lay facility have tested positive for COVID-19," spokeswoman Natalie Ilseng said in an emailed statement provided Wednesday.

The infected employees have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, Frito-Lay said, and the company isn't aware of positive covid-19 cases among employees elsewhere in Arkansas.

"In all cases, employees did not come in contact with product and there is no food safety risk," the statement read. "As a precautionary measure, we have conducted a deep cleaning of the contacted areas and equipment based on CDC guidelines and using EPA-approved registered products for COVID-19."

Seven employees have tested positive at a facility in De Queen operated by the poultry company Pilgrim's, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. One of the employees has reportedly recovered.

Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA and Pilgrim's, declined to disclose covid-19 cases, deferring to the Department of Health.

"Team members who test positive for COVID-19 receive short-term disability pay and benefits, and we've waived the traditional waiting period," Bruett wrote in an email Tuesday. "We are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our facility."

Preventative measures include requiring masks, temperature-testing employees before they enter the facility and deep-cleaning the facility every day, Bruett wrote.

Another well-known poultry processor, Butterball, confirmed covid-19 cases at two locations in Arkansas.

Jordan Fossali, a spokesman for Butterball, wrote in an email that the company has positive covid-19 cases at facilities in Huntsville and Jonesboro. The third Butterball facility in Arkansas, located in Ozark, has no positive covid-19 cases at this time, Fossali said.

"In recent months we have made efforts at all of our plants to 'flatten the curve,' including strict sanitization protocols, social distancing everywhere possible, daily temperature screenings and surgical-style face mask requirements," Fossali wrote in an email. "We will continue to aggressively pursue initiatives that best protect our teams while they are at work."

At various Tyson Foods locations in Arkansas, a total of 46 employees have tested positive for covid-19, according to the Department of Health. Of those cases, 32 have recovered. Specific locations of the infected Tyson employees are unclear based on the Department of Health figures.

A count of covid-19 infections at poultry businesses maintained by the Department of Health lists 53 active cases and 54 recoveries.

Springdale-based Tyson has experienced large outbreaks at meat-processing facilities across the nation. The company did not return a message seeking comment sent Tuesday through the company's website.

Best Manufacturing in Jonesboro reported nine active covid-19 cases to the Department of Health. The company did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

At the Saracen Casino Resort construction site in Pine Bluff, dozens of workers have tested positive, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson. Jackson represents Saracen Casino Resort through her work for public relations firm The Design Group, in addition to her work as a spokeswoman for Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.

Five active covid-19 cases and 51 recoveries have been tied to the Saracen Casino construction site, according to the Department of Health. Jackson confirmed in a text message Wednesday that the department's figures were accurate.

One facility that did not appear in the Department of Health's records as of Tuesday was the Boar's Head delicatessen meat production facility in Forrest City, where at least two employees have tested positive. Company spokeswoman Elizabeth Ward confirmed the two cases May 12 but declined to provide updated numbers this week.

"Questions about additional confirmed cases should be directed to the [Department of Health] as we believe it is the proper authority to convey this information to the public in order to avoid any inaccuracies or miscommunication that might conflict with the Department's regulatory authority to inform the public and protect the community's health and safety," Ward wrote in an email.

Boar's Head has worked to sanitize high-touch surfaces, slowed production lines as needed, made masks mandatory for employees and staggered break times as preventative measures, according to Ward.

Metro on 05/21/2020

Print Headline: State's mills, factories ramp up efforts to rein in virus


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