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Coronavirus kills 8, infects over 350 at California poultry plant now told to shut down

The plant in California's Central Valley was ordered to close temporarily so that a coronavirus outbreak can be brought under control, Merced County health officials said.

A major poultry producer — ordered shut down by local authorities in California in the wake of a deadly coronavirus outbreak — on Friday said its procedures should be sufficient to protect employees.

At least 358 workers at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston have tested positive for coronavirus — and eight have died — prompting the Merced County Department of Health to order it temporarily closed, officials said.

In a statement Friday, Foster Farms confirmed that eight of its workers had died from COVID-19, but implied those employees could have been infected outside the plant.

"It is important to recognize that the increase in positives at the Livingston complex occurred subsequent to the dramatic increases in Merced County," the company said in a statement.

"Foster Farms’ comprehensive set of COVID-19 mitigations, promptly implemented following CDC guidance, can protect employees while they are on our premises, but we cannot fully protect them when they are exposed in the greater community."

The company said of the eight fatalities: "We share the grief of their families and loved ones."

The county health department issued a statement Thursday, telling the Foster Farms plant in Livingston — in the heart of California's Central Valley, about 115 miles southeast of downtown San Francisco — to close.

"Due to the number of deaths and a need to quickly test both permanent and temporary employees at the Foster Farms Livingston Facility, the Merced County Health Officer has ordered the Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant to close until the plant is able to reopen safely," the health department said Thursday.

Merced County granted a 48-hour stay on the shutdown order to “help facilitate logistics associated with any necessary closure," county spokesman Mike North said.

The two-day delay came after the county was called by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary for food safety Thursday and told that the stay will end at 6 p.m. Saturday, North told NBC News on Friday.

The Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant in Livingston, Calif.
The Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant in Livingston, Calif.Google Maps

Foster Farm's statement on Friday did not address when — or even if — the company would comply with the county health order. A Foster Farms media representative declined to elaborate.

A USDA rep said Friday that the agency's intervention was not unusual and happened only after consultation with other local, state and federal authorities.

"The call was productive and allowed all the parties to work out a path forward," the USDA said in a statement. "The Merced County Department of Public Health made the decision to delay a shutdown of the plant for 48 hours to facilitate additional resources for COVID testing of plant employees and to ensure humane handling of the flocks at the facility."

The Foster Farms plant in Livingston was open and operational Friday, according to three employees who answered phones at the facility Friday morning.

County health officials said in the statement that they had worked with the state health department and the state attorney general to try to help the company "limit the impact of the closure," but that no agreement could be reached.

"Temporarily shutting down a food production facility is the last option available in getting this outbreak under control," the statement said.

The county's public health officer, Dr. Salvador Sandoval, said a temporary closure was necessary to bring the outbreak at the plant under control.

“In view of increasing deaths and uncontrolled COVID-19 cases, the decision was made to order the Livingston Plant within the Foster Farms Livingston Complex closed until acceptable safety measures are in place,” Sandoval said in the statement.

“Our charge is to protect the public’s health, even in the face of difficult decisions. The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control. Our hearts are with the eight families who have lost a loved one," he said.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the spread of the virus at the facility "alarming."

“If we’re going to keep food on our tables during this pandemic, we must do a better job of protecting the essential workers who are putting it there," Becerra said in the county statement. "Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant.”

The actual spread of the coronavirus at the plant is unclear because the 358 known cases were largely among employees who chose to be tested or who voluntarily submitted test results, the statement said.

The facility currently has the most severe and longest-lasting of 16 outbreaks of the virus in the county, the statement said.

The Foster Farms plant was first officially declared to have an outbreak June 29, and at that time county health employees conducted a "courtesy walk-through" of the plant and gave recommendations, such as performing widespread testing of workers and changing employee break spaces, according to the statement.

The county health department continued to advise the plant during July about the need for widespread testing, particularly in two hard-hit departments.

But a site visit to the facility in early August by county health officials and state occupational health officials found that the recommendations made on June 29 had not been fully adopted, the county statement said.

Since then, "testing as required" by the health department has not been completed and "the spread of COVID-19 within the facility has not been contained and active outbreaks continue to exist, posing a significant threat to Foster Farms employees and the surrounding community," the statement said.