WORTHINGTON, Minn. (WCCO) — After a handful of workers at the JBS pork processing plant came down with COVID-19, health experts jumped into action. A team of MDH investigators went to Worthington Friday to help determine how widespread the outbreak had become.

“I think at the rate it’s going I don’t know how we can avoid it,” United Food and Commercial Workers local 663 president Matt Utrecht said.

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Utrecht, who represents workers at the plant, says steps were already underway to help stop the spread. JBS had initiated screening all workers, overnight sanitizing of the plant and even slowing production to further distance employees.

But when 33 of the plant’s 2,000 employees tested positive by Sunday evening, JBS was urged to cease operations.

“The handwriting was on the wall so to speak. This had the potential to grow significantly larger than it currently is,” Utrecht said.

The company and Minnesota Department of Health was desperately attempting to prevent a wider outbreak. Fearful of the outbreak hitting the Smithfield pork processing plant 60 miles west in Sioux Falls. That plant is now closed and has seen 891 employees infected with COVID-19.

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JBS processes 20,000 hogs each day, so sitting idle will certainly have a huge economic impact for the region.

“So much of our economy is tied to the ag business, which revolves around livestock production,” Worthington city administrator Steve Robinson said.

But just how severe depends on how long the closure lasts. Worthington’s JBS is not only a major employer in the region, it also impacts area farmers, feed mills and other related industries.

“We have three pharmaceutical companies here in town that produce antibiotics and vaccines for livestock. They’re located here in large part because of the livestock industry,” Robinson said.

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At the union’s urging, JBS will give furloughed workers full pay and health benefits. Hopeful of soon restoring both workers’ health and the nation’s vital food supply.