Federal agencies put pressure on Merced County to keep Foster Farms open, health officials say

Coronavirus

BERKELEY, California (CBS) – One investigative nonprofit claims more than 44,000 workers nationwide have tested positive for Coronavirus, and more than 200 have died.

In late April, the President issued an executive order urging plants to stay open.

Since then, CBS News has only been able to identify a couple of plants that were temporarily closed by government agencies. One is in Merced County. Despite what it says was political pressure, this county’s health department did what most others have not: close down a plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak that claimed some workers’ lives.

Perla Meza says her 61-year old father Filiberto worked unloading trucks at the Foster Farms poultry plant in Livingston for years – until he came down with COVID-19. In August, he went to the hospital and then into a coma. He later died.

Some 2,600 people work at the plant. Merced County public health officials declared an outbreak there in late June, and during a visit, recommended Foster Farms test all of its workers.

She says only limited testing occurred. In July, two workers died of COVID-19.

Merced County continued to monitor the outbreak. On Aug. 7, Foster Farms provided a list showing the number of workers actively infected and those whose cases they described as ‘resolved’.

But county health officer Dr. Salvador Sandoval noticed the list contained no deaths, even though county health staff say workers had told them there were more.

So the health department emailed Foster Farms to ask if there were “any known deaths”, and the next week received a new list. This time, Dr. Sandoval says, five names previously listed only as “resolved” were now listed as “deaths.”

The company said “there was no intentional effort on the part of Foster Farms to deceive the Merced (County) Public Health Department” and that “all issues related to the reporting of data were quickly resolved.”

Now with 8 deaths and over 350 confirmed cases, late in August county health officials told Foster Farms the plant would have to be closed.

That’s when the county Director of Public Health says she suddenly found herself talking to federal agencies. One, she says, mentioning the Defense Production Act, part of the President’s executive order to keep plants running.

The USDA confirmed setting up a phone call with various federal and state agencies but did not respond to our question of whether it pressured county health officials to keep the plant open.

The plant was forced to close for a week, then reopened under county monitoring.

Foster Farms says it’s following public health officials’ requirements and has now hit a testing benchmark of a less than 1% positivity rate among its workers – with what it says is now the “most extensive testing program in California.”

The company maintains “employee health and welfare has always been Foster Farms’ highest priority.” But Perla Meza doesn’t agree, one of the five names revealed as deaths on that second list in August, was her father’s.

While Merced County no longer considers this to be an outbreak, it says the company will continue providing reports. Foster Farms said it is putting in place other mandated requirements, including hiring a licensed healthcare professional to oversee its COVID-19 programs, and one-on-one COVID-19 training for its employees.

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