Confirmed coronavirus cases surge in reopened JBS Colorado beef plant; worker dies: union

CHICAGO (Reuters) - COVID-19 cases at a JBS meatpacking plant in Colorado have more than doubled “in a number of days” and a sixth employee died of the virus, a union official said on Thursday, underscoring the risks of U.S. meat plants reopening.

The beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, started operating last Friday after it was closed for about two weeks following an outbreak among workers.

“The uptick in cases in a matter of days shows how serious this crisis is and the dangers that workers are facing every day just trying to do their jobs,” Kim Cordova, leader of the local United Food and Commercial Workers International Union chapter, said in a news release.

Confirmed cases among workers at the plant rose from 120 on Sunday to 245 on Wednesday evening, a union spokeswoman told Reuters, citing numbers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

JBS USA said in a statement that it was saddened by the death of its employee and that the person had not been to work since March 25.

The company reopened the plant after multiple site visits and approval from health officials including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday invoked the Defense Production Act to mandate meat plants continue to function during the pandemic after companies warned of looming shortages. The order is designed in part to give them legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.

Cordova reiterated workers’ demands for protective equipment and testing, as well as stronger whistleblower laws and better health care.

“Our members share a common goal with JBS, federal, state and local authorities: to ensure that the plant continues to function to protect the food supply chain and to protect jobs, but it must be done in a way that protects the workers so no one else has to die,” she said.

Some 20 plants in North America have closed in recent weeks. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said they would open in “days not weeks,” in an interview on Fox News on Thursday. He said the department, which is overseeing Trump’s order, is working to ensure workers’ safety.

Brazilian-owned JBS SA JBSS3.SA said on Wednesday it was reopening a Minnesota pork plant shuttered by the pandemic to euthanize up to 13,000 pigs rather than produce pork.

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Dan Grebler and Michael Perry