An alarmingly high number of COVID-19 cases are being identified at a meatpacking plant in Amarillo, as test results continue to come in.
During Wednesday’s live video briefing from the City of Amarillo, Casie Stoughton, director of public health, said 155 positive COVID-19 cases were identified from last week’s Texas National Guard testing at the Tyson Food plant.
“Today’s report card will reflect an additional 255 positive test results,” Stoughton said.
All 3,587 employees of Tyson are being tested and as of Wednesday, Stoughton said 1,380 of those tests results were in.
“Staff at public health are making contact with each of the people who have a positive test result,” Stoughton said, later adding that Amarillo Public Health currently has sufficient staff for contact tracing, but that should additional cases be confirmed, staff capacity would need to be reevaluated.
Many of the individuals who tested positive were asymptomatic, meaning they were not showing any signs or symptoms of COVID-19, Stoughton said, which Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said confirms that there are many people in Amarillo who are sick, but don’t know they’re sick and are going about their normal lives.
“They don't know they're sick but they have the virus and they’re at the grocery store – you’re encountering them,” Nelson said. “And that’s why it’s so important to wear a mask. You could be that person. You don’t even know you’re sick.”
Dr. Sameh Moawad, chief of staff and director of the Amarillo VA Health Care System, said asymptomatic surveillance at meatpacking plants will help health officials control the source of the infection.
When asked why the Tyson plant was chosen for widespread testing and the JBS plant in Cactus – which itself has reported a high number of COVID-19 cases – was not, Stoughton said health department offered the additional testing to Tyson, and Tyson officials accepted.
Stoughton said the city is also working with Tyson to ensure that anyone who has tested positive has been alerted and sent home.
Dr. Scott Milton, the City of Amarillo’s Public Health Authority, said it’s likely that the number of infected people is five to 10 times higher than what has been confirmed through testing.
As of Wednesday, there were 1,865 positive cases in Amarillo – with 1,421 in Potter County and 444 in Randall County – up from 1,745 total cases on Tuesday.
Milton said as more testing is done, he expects to see additional cases.
“But as long as we’re able to stay up and keep our hospitals running efficiently and not overtax them, then I think we’re going to be okay,” Milton said.
Stoughton said, to date, 110 Amarillo residents who commute to the JBS plant in Cactus in neighboring Moore County have tested positive for COVID-19. As of Monday, a total of 323 COVID-19 cases had been tied to that plant.
According to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, Moore County reported 521 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. It is uncertain how many of those cases have been traced back to the JBS plant
The Centers for Disease Control deployed six experts to Amarillo over a week ago to assess the situations at both meatpacking facilities and to make recommendations to protect workers and to assist health officials with contact tracing.
Those reports are expected by the end of this week or early next week, Stoughton said.
Dr. Michael Lamenteer, chief medical officer with BSA Health System, said demographically, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s make up the biggest proportion of individuals testing positive for COVID-19, but those being admitted to the hospital are in primarily in their 50s and 60s and 70 years and up.
“So again, I think it’s a situation where we don't want to become complacent with what we're talking about with this virus as we open up this city,” Lamenteer said, reiterating the importance of wearing masks and socially distancing. “We have to take proper precautions.”
Lamenteer said there are currently 39 COVID-19 patients at BSA.
“We are very happy that the number of inpatient cases have remained steady over the past three to five days,” he said.
Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer with Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said there are currently 38 COVID-19 patients at his facility.
“This is the lowest number of COVID-related patients we've had in this hospital in over three weeks,” Weis said.
There are two COVID-19 patients being treated at the Amarillo VA Health Care System, said Moawad, along with 10 COVID-19 patients being quarantined in their homes.
All three doctors said they currently have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Amarillo City Manager Jared Miller said Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to provide additional information about the state’s continuing reopening plans, which began on May 1 with the reopening of in-store retail stores, dine-in restaurants, movie theaters, shopping centers and libraries.
On May 8 the reopening was expanded to include businesses like hair salons, barber shops, nail and tanning salons.
“And then on this coming Monday, May 18, that’s going to expand to include office buildings, manufacturing service, as well as gyms and exercise facilities,” Miller said, adding that all businesses are subject to a 25 percent maximum occupancy, based on permitted occupancy.