South Dakota Meat Processing Factory Becomes Worst Cluster of Coronavirus Outbreak After More Than 700 Positive Cases

A meat-processing factory in South Dakota has become the single-largest cluster of coronavirus cases in both the state and the United States after more than 700 of its 3,700 employees tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, Smithfield Foods has shut down indefinitely, stating that the outbreak is in part due to the "large immigrant population" that works at the facility.

Speaking to Buzzfeed News, a Smithfield spokesperson said that it is difficult to know "what could have been done differently" given the plant's "large immigration population." That spokesperson added that "living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family." Meanwhile, a second spokesperson pointed to similar statements made by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who told Fox News last week that "99 percent" of the confirmed cases were not "happening inside the facility" but rather inside workers' homes, "because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments."

An investigation by Buzzfeed News, however, suggested that the cluster was in part due to "a series of management missteps and half measures," as the company reportedly did not properly inform or protect workers after the first positive coronavirus cases came back in March. Although the plant posted flyers and safety notices on bulletin boards, they were only in English, despite many of the employees having a limited understanding of English. Employees also reported that the facility offered free lunch on April 1, requiring all employees to pass through the same cafeteria.

Smithfield eventually announced that it would shut down the Sioux Falls facility for three days, during which time essential personnel would "repeat the rigorous deep cleaning and sanitization" that had been an ongoing process. However, the company later confirmed that the facility would be shuttered indefinitely. At the time, 238 employees had tested positive for the virus.

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The Sioux Falls location is the world's biggest pork producer and accounts for 4 to 5 percent of the country's pork production. Announcing its indefinite closure, Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, said that it pushes "our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply."

In South Dakota, there have been more than 1,700 confirmed coronavirus cases, with the cluster at the Smithfield facility accounting for nearly half of those. Despite the outbreak, Noem has resisted calls to implement a shelter in place order, stating last week that she doesn't "believe it’s appropriate considering the data, the facts and the science that we have," according to The Daily Beast.