Like many other parts of the High Plains region, the Oklahoma panhandle is seeing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases – over half of which have been traced to a meatpacking plant. While state and local officials are making efforts aimed at stemming further spread, it is unclear whether there is sufficient hospital capacity in the area to weather a surge in cases.
During a live video briefing from Gov. Kevin Stitt Wednesday, Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur said about 151 of the 274 COVID-19 cases being reported in Texas County, Oklahoma had been traced to the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon.
Closing the plant to clean and disinfect, however, would be detrimental to the pork supply, she said.
“It certainly provides challenges when we close down the facility because it is a just in time food supply,” Arthur said. “And so we're feeding - certainly in the pork industry but also in poultry - we're feeding animals to be just-in-time for consumption by consumers. And so stopping the chain of those animals has some challenging and unique dynamics.”
According to Seaboard’s website, the Guymon processing plant processes approximately six million market hogs annually.
The plant employs about 2,700 workers in Texas County.
Texas County, as of Wednesday ranked fifth in the state for the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, behind the more populous counties of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Cleveland and Washington. Updated data was not available as of press time Thursday.
Stitt said the state has been in contact with Seaboard Foods and that it is working with agriculture and commodity groups to make ensure the safety of those “essential employees” at the plant by providing personal protective equipment (PPE).
When asked whether the state had considered having the plant shut down for a couple of weeks for cleaning and disinfection, Arthur said while the state will “always keep the health and safety of those employees as a priority,” she and other state officials have been talking to other states that have seen outbreaks at meatpacking facilities about “best practices” and “solutions that they’ve come up with,” but she did not provide specifics about those practices or solutions.
She said the state is also seeking guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for guidance on how to address the rise in cases at the plant.
Officials from the Guymon plant did not respond to a call seeking comment, but according to Seaboard Foods’ website, the company has implemented the following: requires everyone entering any of its facilities to wear a mask, provides temperature-taking stations, sanitizes the plant and equipment with anti-bacterial and anti-virus cleansers on a daily basis, posts informational signage to ensure respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, and has implemented physical distancing where possible throughout its plants.
The company is also asking any employees who don’t feel well to be assessed by health services or web-based medical services or to stay home and self-isolate, among other things.
In a video on the website, President and CEO Duke Sand said the company is doing everything it can to make employees’ health and safety a top priority.
“That’s why we continue to work with health authorities and industry experts to ensure that we’re leaning forward to help you protect you from the threat of COVID-19,” Sand said.
Sand said the company is also providing all employees with benefit options.
“That way someone who is sick or that needs to stay home due to a sick family member will not have to make a decision between saying home and earning a wage,” he said.
More information about those benefits can be found here.
Texas County’s only hospital, according to Terri Salisbury, regional county health director for the Oklahoma panhandle, is Memorial Hospital in Guymon – a 25-bed hospital, according to its website.
Nancy Schmidt, CEO of Memorial Hospital, did not reply to an email asking about the hospital’s capacity or plans should the county see an even greater surge in cases, as of press time Thursday.
During the briefing Wednesday, Stitt said that even though there were over 200 cases in Texas County, not all COVID-19 patients have to be hospitalized. He added that he would provide additional information at a later time about whether Texas County COVID-19 patients might be forced to seek treatment in Amarillo, Texas – which is about two hours from Guymon – instead of larger medical facilities in Oklahoma.
Stitt said arrangements have been made with Oklahoma Panhandle State University (OPSU) in Goodwell – about 10 miles southwest of Guymon – to use the school’s student housing for “those positive patients or for the workers.”
Officials from OPSU did not return a call seeking comment.
Salisbury said many of the employees of Seaboard Foods commute from other counties in Oklahoma or from bordering Texas and Kansas counties, so individuals with COVID-19 from those areas are counted in their respective state and county case counts. She did confirm, however, that there are over 150 cases traced to the Seaboard Foods plant in Guymon.
She said the Oklahoma National Guard and other health departments in the state have been assisting Texas County health officials with contact tracing as Guymon slowly reopens along with the rest of the state, under Stitt’s phased reopening plan. But individual counties or municipalities can adopt their own policies to slow the spread if necessary, Salisbury said.
Salisbury encourages all residents of Texas County to get tested for the virus by calling the Texas County Health Department at 1-580-338-8544.
“We will screen anyone, as long as they’re over the age of 16, but we will screen so that we have a good idea of who is displaying symptoms and who isn’t, but anyone can be tested,” she said, adding that the health department has plenty of testing equipment available.
She said anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate.
“There are several entities that can help if people need to get resources if they’re having to isolate, and they can by all means call the health department and we’ll do all we can to get them the resources they need - whether its food, or medicine,” Salisbury said. “Whatever they need we will do our best to get that to them to keep them from going out in the public and exposing others.”