Ten of the 41 positive COVID-19 cases in Central District Health Departments area of Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties have come from JBS in Grand Island.
At a briefing broadcast online and on GITV, Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele said he learned of the news Thursday evening from Teresa Anderson, health director for the Central District Health Department. He called the 10 positive COVID-19 cases at JBS concerning because the number is high for one business.
Steele said he and Anderson focused on the 10 cases at JBS “for the past several hours” Friday, talking about them with Matt Miltenberger, Gov. Pete Ricketts’ chief of staff, and Felicia Quintana-Zinn from the Nebraska Department of Health. They also reached out to management at JBS Grand Island.
Steele said many have asked him why businesses such as JBS, McCain Foods and Case New Holland are still in operation while other businesses are closed.
He said the aforementioned businesses are open to comply with guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that all critical supply functions, such as food production and agriculture, remain open if possible.
“During this time of crisis with COVID-19, we have to achieve a balance,” Steele said. “We have made decisions to close some functions of our business community because they are not essential to life or wellbeing. Things such as food production are essential to the functioning of America and to your health and wellbeing.”
He added: “As mayor, I must balance the need for critical infrastructure, such as food processing and agriculture, against the need for all of us to take a step back. By taking a step back, I mean that for those who are not employed in critical infrastructure, they are expected to practice social distancing and stay home when possible.”
Zack Ireland, general manager at JBS Grand Island, said the plant is not forcing anyone to come to work. He emphasized the company wants workers who are sick to stay home.
Ireland said JBS is providing a safe work environment for its employees by providing them with face coverings and checking their temperatures. He added the plant is also cleaned and sanitized every day to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A large tent has been placed outside the plant, Ireland said, to increase the size of its commons and facilities areas during break times. He said dividers have also been placed on the tables in the cafeteria to provide additional separation.
“We also educate our employees on proper behaviors outside of work,” Ireland said. “We stay in touch with the local health department and Teresa (Anderson) regularly. We are continuing to evolve as we learn more about this virus.”
Anderson said that in addition to 10 positive COVID-19 cases coming from JBS Grand Island, three nursing home facilities in CDHD’s area — Lakeview and Heritage in Grand Island, and Westfield in Aurora — have confirmed cases.
“The COVID-19 virus is in health care workers within these facilities,” she said. “The health care workers are now quarantined, but our concern is for the folks they were around before they became ill.”
Anderson said that since there is community spread of the coronavirus, the assumption should be made that the virus is everywhere. She urged people to practice social distancing and stay home whenever possible.
Anderson encouraged those who need to shop for groceries or any other needed items to either shop online or have only one individual from the household shop at a time.