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Update: Coronavirus Clusters Grow Rapidly In Three Western Kansas Meatpacking Counties

Bethany Wood
For the Kansas News Service
National Beef has a meatpacking plant in Liberal, Kansas, which is in Seward County.

Update: Kansas Health Secretary Lee Norman said on Friday that Kansas has now identified 250 cases of COVID-19 among workers at the state's six meatpacking plants. The federal government has sent supplies to test thousands of people in southwest Kansas. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending staff to the region.

GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Two western Kansas counties that are home to meatpacking plants have some of the highest counts of the coronavirus in the state. It’s a distinction that comes as the Tyson plant near Garden City said this week it has several cases among its workers.

None of the meatpacking plants, which make up about 25% of the national beef supply according to a Kansas State professor’s estimate, has shared a specific count of workers with a COVID-19 diagnosis. And the state health department leaves it up to county health departments to decide whether to provide the public with detailed case information.

In the span of 11 days, Ford County, where there is a National Beef and a Cargill plant in Dodge City, has gone from 16 cases to 288. Seward County, which has a National Beef plant in Liberal, went from six to 125. Finney County, where the Tyson plant is located, is up from 17 to 87.

Several meatpacking plants around the country, from South Dakota to Iowa to Colorado, have had to shut down temporarily over the past few weeks due to the number of workers coming down with the coronavirus. But so far, Kansas’ major meatpacking plants have not fully shut down, though the National Beef plant in Dodge City did close for a few days for deep cleaning.

Companies say they’ve been taking extra precautions and social distancing measures. But unions are pressing for better protections inside plants, where workers stand-side-by side to cut meat from carcasses. 

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said there is an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to the situation at the local, state and federal levels for testing, isolation and providing things like shields and personal protective equipment to protect workers.

“We’ve found isolation housing for those who need to be quarantined if they’ve had any contact,” Kelly said Thursday on KCUR’s “Up To Date” talk show. “So we’re taking a very aggressive approach, because we don’t want to be like Iowa or South Dakota where we’re having to shut those plants down.”

The Tyson plant in Holcomb employs about 3,800 people. The announcement of cases among Tyson workers came shortly after the Finney County Health Department began testing up to 50 people a day for the virus. Health department director Colleen Drees said “there is evidence of community spread.” 

High Plains Public Radio news director Angie Haflich and Kansas News Service news editor Erica Hunzinger contributed to this report.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Corinne _boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.