How a pork-processing plant in South Dakota became the largest coronavirus hotspot in the U.S.

South Dakota is one of only a handful of states that don’t have a statewide shelter-in-place order. Now, the state is dealing with the country’s largest coronavirus hotspot as hundreds of workers at a pork-processing plant have been infected with COVID-19.

Although the city of Sioux Falls has implemented a shelter in place, the Smithfield Food plant continued to operate. As of April 15, a cluster of 644 people, including 518 employees, were diagnosed with the virus. That beats out the cluster of 585 positive coronavirus patients from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Guam, the previous high in the U.S.

The plant, where about 3,700 employees work, has now been closed. Still, the number of positive tests in the state has gone from 180 to more than 1,100 as a result of the food plant cluster. There’s also a worry that the country is facing an accelerated path toward a possible food shortage due to the closure of the plant that produced 18 million pork product servings per day—about 5% of the pork production in the U.S.

“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan, who also temporarily closed two of his meat plants in Wisconsin and Missouri, said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

According to the Washington Post, Smithfield Foods workers had complained that they weren’t given face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) while they were working and that there was no such thing as social distancing inside the factory. The company said it had added more hand sanitizing stations and had increased access to PPE.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said on April 14 that a statewide shelter-in-place order wouldn’t have helped avoid the cluster since the plant would have been considered an essential services workplace anyway. The first-term Republican who had previously rejected a request from the Sioux Falls mayor to implement that order and has been under pressure from other state officials to do so said, “I’ve seen some national stories written that a shelter-in-place would have prevented this outbreak at Smithfield. That is absolutely false … This is a critical infrastructure job plant.”

Earlier in April, Noem defended her decision by saying South Dakota can’t be compared to New York City, the country’s epicenter for the coronavirus. But now her state’s COVID-19 stats have increased exponentially, and she’s talking about the potential usage of hydroxychloroquine, the controversial drug that’s recently been touted by Donald Trump as a possible cure for the virus.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said that there’s no evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted through food or its packaging.

Sources: Sioux Falls Argus Leader, New York Times, USA Today, Associated Press, CNN, Washington Post

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