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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Magic Valley Sees Case Spikes Among Food Workers

fry_foods_weiser_0.jpg
Idaho Statesman via Crush the Curve
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A worker outside the Fry Foods plant in Weiser gets a COVID-19 test administered by Crush the Curve Idaho.

Almost 100 coronavirus cases confirmed in the Magic Valley in the last week were from two food processing facilities.

 

At least 50 employees at Rite Stuff Foods, a potato processing facility in Jerome, and 45 employees at Ida-Beef, a slaughterhouse in Burley, tested positive late last week.

Those 94 cases of employees account for nearly 50% of the cases the South Central Public Health District reported last week. 

The South Central Public Health District is expecting to see more cases in food processing facilities, said Brianna Bodily, the public information office. The facilities are designed for efficiency, which often means employees are working very close together, she said. 

“It’s a frustrating reality.” 

To prevent potential outbreaks at facilities, Bodily recommended three things: Employees should work six feet apart at all times; businesses should sanitize frequently-used surfaces frequently; and employers should offer a leave policy that allows employees to stay home when they’re sick.

“A lot of where this breaks down is when employees feel like they can’t go home, even when they’re sick,” Bodily said.

Ida-Beef CEO Allan Ward told KMVT that employees who are feeling sick won’t be allowed in the plant. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act offers paid sick leave to most workers for two weeks if they're “experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis.” 

Both these Magic Valley employers made efforts to secure testing for their employees. The Idaho Statesman reported all 173 Rite Stuff Foods employees were tested through a mobile testing unit. Ida-Beef employees were tested at Minidoka Memorial Hospital, but only symptomatic employees were able to get tests, KMVT reported. 

Ultimately, it’s up to the employers — not the health district — to handle testing of employees, even for what the health department considers “clusters” of cases.

“We ourselves are not testers. We can’t order tests, we can’t do any of that because we’re not healthcare providers,” said Bodily. “Our role is to investigate, not to perform testing.” 

The South Central Public Health District also released data on the breakdown of cases by ethnicity on Thursday. In five of eight Magic Valley counties, Hispanic or Latino people are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases. In Lincoln County, nearly 80% of cases were Hispanic or Latino, but Latinos make up only 30% of the county population.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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