Merced County virus numbers ‘moving in right direction’
Break room contributed to Foster Farms outbreak
‘Usually what we find is that the most vulnerable place in a facility is the break room, and that’s where the highest risk of vulnerability is. People aren’t wearing masks in break rooms typically, and social distancing can be difficult in break rooms because people are friends and may be sharing food.’
Dr. Kristynn Sullivan,
Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist
Foster Farms’ poultry processing operation in Livingston was allowed to reopen this week after testing of the workers, employee training, and cleaning of the facility which took place during a six-day closure instituted by the Merced County Public Health Department due to an alarming COVID-19 outbreak.
In addition to the effective steps taken to halt the spread of the outbreak at Foster Farms, local health officials say the county is generally moving in the right direction in terms of the severity of the pandemic.
The current situation
Governor Gavin Newsom’s new COVID-19 reopening rules established on Aug. 31 provided for a four-tier, color-coded system that counties move through based on their number of cases and the percentage of positive tests. Merced County has been on the purple tier, the most restrictive tier, since the start of the system.
“We are continuing to move in the right direction,” Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist, told the Times. “Cases per 100,000 are decreasing, and our positivity rate is below 8 percent for the first time in months. We’re at 7.3 percent.
“It will be awhile before the county moves to red tier. We’re at 221 cases per 100,000, and we have to get to below 100 cases per 100,000, and stay below 100 for two weeks, and then we can move to red.
“With the way things are going in the last two weeks, we have dropped by about 150 cases per 100,000 so at that rate, it would be about four more weeks before we can move to red tier. It might take longer than four weeks if there’s a spike in cases due to Labor Day weekend, or if the cases don’t decrease at the same rate they have been.
“On Sept. 8, the number of total virus cases in Merced County was 8,415, with 123 fatalities.
“Cases are decreasing. Our active case number (current positive cases) in the last 14 days has gone down dramatically. The number of active cases was 2,000 at the height of our spread in late July and early August. We were at 849 active cases on Sept. 4.
“As to how the number of active cases are calculated, when we had more resources and fewer cases, we had called all of our cases for clearance and we would provide the number of cases that had officially recovered. However, when the cases became substantially higher, we weren’t able to do that any longer, so instead we made a best guess estimate based on people who had a positive test in the last 14 days.
“That was our best substitute to determine active cases.
“We know that people are getting tired and frustrated with the COVID restrictions, but we really are moving in the right direction, and I would hate to lose the progress we’ve made.
“So keep doing social distancing, masking, washing hands, and all the other protocols because it’s working.”
Foster Farms spread
Dr. Sullivan revealed to the Times some contributing factors linked to the recent outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases at the Foster Farms plant.
“Usually what we find is that the most vulnerable place in a facility is the break room, and that’s where the highest risk of vulnerability is,” she said. “People aren’t wearing masks in break rooms typically, and social distancing can be difficult in break rooms because people are friends and may be sharing food.
“When we did our site inspections, we identified that the break rooms were the biggest places of spread. There were break rooms throughout the facility, but there was one main break space for quite a few people.
“Also, the nature of plant line work makes it difficult to socially distance. Foster Farms did implement safety measures pretty early on in terms of trying to space out workers and putting up barriers when social distancing wasn’t possible. If social distancing was not possible and they were not able to put up a barrier, masks were required.
“Face masks were required, and in some cases face shields, but cloth masks were sufficient. N95 masks were not required. Masks were provided.
“Those protocols were followed by Foster Farms, but there could have been human error, and when people are closer together, that is a high risk environment.”
The Foster Farms outbreak, declared officially on June 29, was extensive, resulting in eight fatalities and 392 employees testing positive.
Before the closure of the Livingston plant at the end of the day shift on Sept. 1, Public Health reported the outbreak accounted for 18 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the county under age 65, 7 percent of total county deaths, and four out of 10 COVID-19 deaths in Livingston. The COVID-19 fatality rate at Foster Farms was 2.2 percent, nearly twice the rate of the rest of the county.
Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “Foster Farms is one of the largest employers in Merced County. After the Merced County Public Health Department closed the facility on Sept. 1, about 1,400 workers went home.
“Predominantly, because the outbreak had not been contained, it was particularly in the largest operating building at the plant. The closure was in order to have a clean slate and test everyone in the plant and perform a third party deep cleaning for that plant. They followed the CDC procedure of a terminal cleaning, which is conducted after a COVID positive individual is in a space.
“On the rest of the complex, there are quite a few other buildings, and all the others were allowed to operate. A small staff was able to come into the main building itself for sanitation purposes as well as to depopulate chickens and do rendering of the chickens. It was not to make any food product, but was simply for depopulation of chickens that couldn’t be moved during the cleaning.
“The staff in the Foster Farms plant had to take two COVID tests where the results were negative before they could return to work. Of the group who went home during the closure, everyone took two tests at least three days but no more than seven days apart, before they were allowed to return to work.
“There were some positive tests in the group of 1,400 employees plus the temporary workers, but the percentage of the positives was very low, and those individuals were sent home and an investigation was done as to whether they had been in the plant during the infection period.
“Everyone working has been actively cleared.
“All the employees had to receive a safety training before re-entry.
Said Dr. Sullivan, “Foster Farms put together a massive testing operation for the Foster Farms plant and were able to test people once on Sept. 2 and once on Sept. 5. They set up tents outside on the campus and got everybody to come in for that testing. They were able to send the tests to a lab that had a rapid turn around time to shorten the length of the closure, since that testing was a requirement to reopen.
“Foster Farms contracted with a third party vendor to do the cleaning, and they cleaned the Plant and the rest of the Complex over the course of multiple days,” Sullivan said. “They followed the CDC procedures for a terminal clean.”
“During the closure, Foster Farms created more break space outside,” Sullivan said. “It is always better to be outside.
“For the indoor break spaces, they increased social distancing and implemented a monitoring program to make sure that the social distancing is being adhered to.
“The testing of employees was a major component, as well as the training of all the staff.
“Foster Farms reopened for the night shift on Sept. 7.”