The situation appeared to be bleak on April 17.
That was the Friday night when a corporate call from Tyson Fresh Meats came to the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department informing the department that Madison pork plant employees would not be going to the first free COVID-19 testing offered in Norfolk with help from the Nebraska National Guard the next day.
At that point, there were believed to have been two or three employees who had tested positive earlier that week for the coronavirus.
Then a lot of behind-the-scenes work unfolded over a few days and resulted in good outcomes regarding transparency and mitigation for all.
The Madison pork plant is a major employer, with 1,200 workers from all over Madison County and beyond. In addition, many of its employees work, shop, eat and socialize in Norfolk.
Naturally both Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning and Madison Mayor Al Brandl were among the concerned.
Moenning said he feared that all the progress that was achieved by stringent social distancing could be lost with a major outbreak at the Madison plant, similar to what happened in other meatpacking communities.
“As you know, at the outset of the Tyson Madison facility outbreak (about) a month ago, Tyson’s corporate office initially resisted testing opportunities for its employees. This prompted local officials speaking out and urging a serious approach and decisive action on Tyson’s part,” Moenning said.
Within two weeks, Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health, working with Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s office, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and local health care providers, identified third-party testing capabilities and this convinced Tyson to take part in full employee testing, Moenning said.
After extensive discussion, Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department officials persuaded Tyson that working with the locals was beneficial, and that the full testing results needed to be released to the public. Plus, Tyson also collaborated on containment measures.
“You’ve not seen that level of collaboration — and those achieved outcomes — at other sites or in other states,” Moenning said.
Gina Uhing, director of the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department, said Tyson cooperated after the initial decline for testing.
“That was disappointing. I am not going to sugarcoat that,” Uhing said.
Then Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office became involved. About two or three days later, Tyson complied and everything went smoothly.
So what might have changed?
“Honestly, I believe Tyson was trying to work with us, but we didn’t know how to work with each other. (That was in part) because we had our list of duties that needed to be accomplished. When you are working with large employers like that, there’s multiple layers of decision-makers. I did come out in the media (with concerns) when this outbreak was first surfacing,” Uhing said.
“It didn’t take long after my initial (comments) for Tyson to work with us. We didn’t have as many roadblocks as other meatpacking facilities in the state and nation had in working with the public health department. I want to give Tyson credit because ... that’s not been achieved everywhere in the nation.”
Tyson worked with a third-party medical contractor to test all of its employees. The plant also suspended operations until the tests were completed. While the plant was idle, Tyson also performed a deep clean and sanitation of its plant.
Uhing said the only other “slight conflict” occurred on how quickly the testing numbers would be released. At first, Tyson didn’t want to release them immediately, but the department had been copied by a Norfolk attorney on a letter he was planning to write to the Daily News.
The letter was critical of how the matter was being handled, calling on community leaders and Tyson to release the testing numbers.
Next came a phone meeting with Fortenberry’s office, Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer, Mayors Brandl and Moenning and others.
Uhing said there was no doubt that Tyson would release the numbers, but the letter and the local leaders’ conversations persuaded Tyson to release the figures ahead of the letter.
Once the figures were released, the Daily News chose not to run the letter because it became a moot point.
Of the 1,467 team members and contractors who work at the facility, 212 tested positive for COVID-19, according to Tyson. The total comprises 112 people identified through mass testing and 100 individuals identified through local health care providers, according to Tyson.
Among those during the mass testing event, 74 individuals did not show any symptoms and otherwise would not have been identified. Team members who test positive receive paid leave and may return to work only when they have met the criteria established by both the Centers for Disease Control and Tyson.
“Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, and we appreciate the collaboration and support of Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department as we provided testing and took steps to complement our existing prevention efforts,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods. “As we learn more about this virus, we continue to do everything we can to protect our team members and ensure they feel safe and secure when they come to work. We’re proud of our Tyson team members and are supporting them with the most up-to-date information and resources to take care of their health.”
Uhing said the positive rate and successful reopening was because both sides learned to work together.
“I think there was perceived a lot of battles and arm wrestling, but that really isn’t the case with us because we didn’t have to come down heavy-handed with them,” she said.
Fortenberry said he was pleased with the outcome.
“I have been working closely with USDA to stay in front of any disruption to our food supply. Tyson was predictably slow to react. Now that they have caught up, they are flying right — protecting their workers and helping prevent community spread. While there is still important work to be done going forward, I want to thank Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning and community leaders for getting things right in Madison,” Fortenberry said.
Uhing said Tyson continues to be a good community partner, reaching out to the department a couple of times during the week.
Tyson is under no obligation, yet it continues to check to see if there is anything it can do or should be doing, or just to see if it can be of help, she said.
“I really have to commend them,” she said.