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Germany reports largest COVID-19 outbreak since early May

More than 600 employees from the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck tested positive, health officials from the city of Guetersloh said.
Image: The Toennies meat packing plant stands at twilight during the coronavirus pandemic in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck
The Toennies meat packing plant in the German city of Guetersloh has been closed by health officials. Lukas Schulze / Getty Images

MAINZ, Germany — Germany has recorded its largest COVID-19 outbreak since it started reopening its economy in early May, officials said Wednesday, as they linked the hundreds of cases to a meatpacking plant.

A total 657 workers from the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck tested positive, the officials in the city of Guetersloh said, adding that they had received 983 test results.

As a result, they immediately ordered the closure of the slaughterhouse, as well as isolation and tests for everyone else who had worked at the site — putting about 7,000 people under quarantine.

Germany has been widely praised for its management of the outbreak. The country has confirmed more than 187,000 coronavirus cases and 8,856 people have died from the respiratory illness, a figure that is comparatively low given its large population of nearly 84 million.

The infection rate declined sharply after authorities imposed nationwide social distancing rules in March and the government began the gradual easing of restrictions last month, reopening stores, restaurants and bars with strict social distancing rules in place. Sport has also resumed without fans and large social gatherings remain banned.

An employee stands outside the headquarters of abattoir company Toennies in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, Germany on Wednesday.Sascha Schuermann / AFP - Getty Images

News of the outbreak in Guetersloh came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was meeting with Germany's 16 state governors to discuss progress in tackling the pandemic.

“We see from these outbreaks that the virus isn't gone,” Merkel told reporters after the meeting before insisting that the country would continue to relax restrictions while containing local outbreaks.

Praising health officials in Guetersloh for their quick response, she said: “We are far away from an exponential increase."

This outbreak was the largest in a string of similar so-called superspreader events at meat-processing plants across the country, which has prompted the government to impose stricter safety rules for the industry.

Trucks leave the Toennies meatpacking plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, Germany, on Wednesday.David Inderlied / AP

Sven-Georg Adenauer, the head of Rheda-Wiedenbrueck's regional administration, told the DPA news agency that the plant's closure could affect the meat supply across the whole country.

Outbreaks linked to meatpacking plants have also been reported been reported in other countries including France and the U.S., bringing a renewed global focus on the poor working conditions in the sector.

Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Isobel van Hagen from London.

Associated Press contributed.