SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Federal health officials hope to take the first steps toward getting a South Dakota pork processing plant and coronavirus hot spot back up and running.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had staff in Sioux Falls on Thursday touring the Smithfield Foods, Inc. plant. That step comes three weeks after the first COVID-19 case involving a Smithfield employee was determined on March 24.
The CDC team is assessing conditions and developing an action plan needed to safely reopen the hog harvesting facility that's been shut down for nearly a week, according to Gov. Kristi Noem's office.
"Next steps of the plan are contingent on feedback from the CDC’s efforts today," Noem's spokesman Ian Fury told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Noem said Thursday that the state expects to have a report from the CDC in the coming days, and that it will be released to the public. The governor also said she's been in close contact with the plant's CEO as well as U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
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"We’re working closely with the plant to make sure it’s an environment that’s safe for the employees and also, we're doing it in a time frame to help our ag producers who are looking to market their hogs," Noem said.
Late Wednesday, Smithfield sent a statement to Argus Leader thanking the CDC for its support and reiterating the enhanced cleaning taking place at the plant and an education program for its employees to educate them on how to be safe in at home and in the community during a pandemic.
Smithfield plans to re-open as soon as possible.
"We recognize the critical and essential nature of our work at this facility for the local community, for farmers and for the entire food system," the statement read. "Smithfield will resume operations in Sioux Falls once further direction is received from local, state and federal officials."
Nearly 600 employees at Smithfield plant in South Dakota have COVID-19
Nearly 600 Smithfield employees in Sioux Falls have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started, with an additional 135 confirmed cases tied directly to the plant. The state isn't releasing how many of those 135 cases are in Smithfield employees' households.
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The increasing case numbers at the Smithfield plant prompted the company last week to announce a three-day closure to clean the plant. However, after cases continued to surge there, Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken Saturday called for the plant to be shut down for 14 days.
The following day, Smithfield said it was closing the plant indefinitely.
That's caused worry among public officials as well as farmers and food consumers as the closure will choke the nation's meat supply.
Perdue on Wednesday took to social media to say he is in contact with the governor and assisting in getting the Smithfield plant operational as quickly as possible.
In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the secretary understands the critical nature of maintaining the country's food supply chain while also ensuring the safety of employees and food inspectors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"He also applauds the true commitment and patriotism our food supply chain workers have shown during this time and the work they continue to do day in and day out," the statement read. "USDA recognizes and supports the efforts of private industry and companies to maintain operational status of their facilities while also maintaining the safety and health of their work force. USDA, together with the FDA and CDC, will continue to support a whole of America approach to ensure the food supply chain remains safe and secure.”
South Dakota's Congressional delegation and 28 other U.S. senators and representatives from agricultural states called on Perdue on Thursday to "take immediate action" to provide financial and technical assistance to American pork producers in the event Smithfield and other meat plants around the country remain closed beyond
In the the letter, which Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson led efforts to craft, the members of Congress said they're hopeful the nation's food supply chain can be restored quickly, but farmers need assurance that if it isn't, they will be supported.
“However, in the event that producers are unable to schedule harvest of their hogs, we request that you consider how to use your existing authorities and available funds to compensate producers for losses," read the letter.
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