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Update of statement regarding COVID-19 outbreak at Foster Farms Facility in Livingston

County supervisor, Livingston mayor speak out on situation

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an updated statement released Saturday regarding the reported COVID-19 outbreak at Foster Farms Facility in Livingston

On Friday, August 28, 2020, discussions were held between Foster Farms and the Merced County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) regarding the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at the Foster Farms Livingston poultry complex and mitigation directives outlined in the Health Officer Order.

MCDPH has issued a revised Health Officer Order, requiring closure of the Foster Farms Livingston Plant Building on the Livingston complex for a six (6) day period beginning the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 1 and lasting until the evening of Monday, Sept. 7. The closure will allow for deep cleaning and employee testing. If proper deep cleaning and employee testing cannot be achieved by then, the closure could be extended.

MCDPH allowed Foster Farms additional time before closure due to the massive coordination efforts required to prepare the facility for appropriate disinfection and safe removal of poultry. Before any employees can return to work in the Livingston Plant Building, they will need to test negative twice within seven (7) days. Foster Farms has procured tests to complete this mass testing initiative, and tests will be of no cost to employees.

The remainder of the Foster Farms Livingston complex that is not experiencing an outbreak will remain open, consistent with the prior Health Order, and will require frequent employee testing provided by Foster Farms as well as COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as social distancing, expanded break rooms, employee screening, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and other hygienic measures.

Since originally being declared as an outbreak location on June 29, the Foster Farms Livingston complex has become the most severe and long-lasting outbreak in Merced County. To date, there are 392 employees of the Foster Farms Livingston complex who have tested positive and eight (8) have died due to COVID-19.

There have been multiple site visits, calls and coordination efforts between the Merced County Department of Public Health, Foster Farms, Cal/OSHA, and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). In a prior letter to Foster Farms, Dr. Erica Pan, Acting State Health Officer for CDPH, stated that CDPH supports the County’s actions and agrees that Foster Farms must take immediate steps to protect its workforce.

The California State Attorney General’s Office and USDA also assisted in the development and implementation strategies of the current Health Order.

“This Health Order is a significant step toward our ultimate goal of stemming the spread of COVID-19 in our community and saving lives,” said Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County’s Public Health Officer. “We take these types of situations very seriously. We’re grateful that Foster Farms was willing to come to the table and reach an agreement that will protect its employees while providing a blueprint for the company to continue its critical food production operations.”

 

MCDPH is appreciative for the partnership and collaboration with the various state entities that led to a positive result. Merced County health officials consider this outcome an achievement in protecting the community, saving lives, and allowing the Foster Farms Livingston complex to safely return to normal operations.

“I never assumed this trek would be easy, but whenever we are able to get the community what they need, then we all win,” said Dr. Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp, Merced County Public Health Director.

“Our team’s countless hours dedicated to COVID-19 response have been directed at lessening the impact of this horrible disease, especially in the most vulnerable populations of our community,” said Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Supervising Epidemiologist for MCDPH.

“We always support our local businesses, and helping to guide Foster Farms through these challenging circumstances is just another example of that,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Rodrigo Espinoza, whose District 1 incorporates Foster Farms. “The current Health Order is a much better solution than other protracted alternatives. Public Health is of the upmost importance in Merced County.”

“The important aspect here isn’t so much the number of shutdown days, but rather the steps Foster Farms will take to safely get their employees back to work,” said Livingston Mayor Gurpal Samra. “We appreciate the consideration of these employees, many of whom are residents of the City of Livingston and surrounding communities.”

In response to the temporary shutdown, Worknet Merced County and the Employment Development Department will host virtual presentations Wednesday and Thursday in multiple languages on services available to affected employees. The dates and times of these virtual presentations will be available Monday morning on www.ReopenMercedCounty.com.

For more information on COVID-19, please visit Merced County Department of Public Health’s resource website at www.countyofmerced.com/coronavirus.

 

 

NEWS UPDATE (AUG. 27, 8:04 p.m.): Following a phone call with the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, a 48-hour stay of enforcement has been issued on yesterday’s Health Order specific to Foster Farms to help facilitate logistics associated with any necessary closure.

 

 

Editor’s Note: Here are two letters from Merced County and State officials regarding a reported COVID-19 outbreak at the Foster Farms facility in Livingston. Recent social media posts (evening of Thursday, July 27) appear to indicate some portions of the large Foster Farms plant in Livingston continue to operate and workers are scheduled to work upcoming shifts. Stay tuned.

Statement Regarding COVID-19 Outbreak at Foster Farms Facility in Livingston

The Merced County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) has been actively responding
to COVID-19 since January 27th, 2020 and works closely with local businesses to limit the spread of the
disease and protect customers, employees, and the surrounding community. These efforts have resulted
in the successful mitigation and resolution of 16 outbreaks (defined as three or more cases within a
shared facility) to date.

The most severe and long-lasting outbreak in Merced County is at the Foster Farms Livingston Facility.
On June 29th, MCDPH notified Foster Farms that its Livingston Facility was officially declared an
outbreak. To date, there are 358 employees who have tested positive. The numbers of known cases in
the outbreak were largely based on employees choosing to test and voluntarily reporting to Foster Farms.
The true spread of COVID-19 in the Foster Farms Livingston Facility remains unknown.

Eight (8) employees of the Foster Farms Livingston Facility have died due to COVID-19 throughout the
course of the current outbreak. For Foster Farms employees, the case fatality rate is 2.2 percent—it is
1.3 percent within the general population of Merced County. Data further show that the Foster Farms
Livingston Facility accounts for a significant number of countywide deaths in those under the age of 65
(18 percent), total County deaths (7 percent), and deaths within the City of Livingston (4 out of 10).

On June 29, 2020, a month prior to any deaths and as cases continued to rise because of the outbreak,
Merced County health officials provided a courtesy walk-through of the Foster Farms facility and
provided recommendations to control the outbreak. These included making significant changes to the
employee break spaces and performing widespread testing of employees within the facility.

Throughout the month of July, MCDPH continued to advise Foster Farms that widespread testing
needed to be conducted to control the outbreak, particularly within the two departments with the highest
number of cases. In late July, Foster Farms tested less than 10 percent of the department with the largest
impact within the facility (less than 100 employees total). Over 25 percent of the employees screened at
this time tested positive. However, expanded testing within the department was not completed for an
additional three weeks and subsequently, three fatalities were linked to that department alone.

On August 3rd, CalOSHA and MCDPH performed a site visit; this was the second visit by MCDPH. At
the time of this visit, recommendations made by MCDPH from the June 29th initial visit had not been
fully adopted. On August 5, 2020 and August 11, 2020, the Merced County Health Officer issued
directives to Foster Farms providing specific direction on testing requirements and other safety measures
to control the spread of COVID-19 within the Livingston facility. Those directives required immediate
COVID-19 testing of all permanent, volunteer, and temporary employees who share air within a facility
that has an outbreak. Once an outbreak is confirmed within a building, it isn’t cleared from outbreak
protocol until the building reports no additional cases for two consecutive weeks or until testing of the
building shows less than 1 percent of the workforce is COVID-19 positive.

Since the August 5th directive was issued, 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. Furthermore, testing as required by the Health Directive had not been
completed and it is unclear whether the temporary workers were included in testing, as recommended
by MCDPH.

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, as approved by the Health
Officer. MCDPH will continue to work with Foster Farms throughout this process.

Merced County and its partnerstake decisions of this nature very seriously. The State Attorney General’s
Office, California Department of Public Health and MCDPH worked with Foster Farms to limit the
impact of the closure and could not reach agreement. Temporarily shutting down a food production
facility is the last option available in getting this outbreak under control.

“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. That means standing up for the people in our poultry
facilities, agricultural fields, meat processing plants, restaurants, grocery stores, and more,” said
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “Foster Farms’ poultry operation in Livingston, California
has experienced an alarming spread of COVID-19 among its workers. Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s
time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant.”

“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,” said Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County’s Public Health Officer. “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.”

 

FROM THE CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH …

Dear Foster Poultry Farms:

It has come to my attention that the Merced County Department of Public Health (County) issued an order yesterday taking action to protect the public from an outbreak of COVID-19 in Foster Poultry Farms (Foster Farms) facilities in Livingston.

I understand this order was necessary because Foster Farms is not in compliance with County directives dated August 5 and August 11, 2020, designed to assist Foster Farms in bringing the outbreak under control without the need for an order. By failing to comply with County directives, Foster Farms is not only jeopardizing the health of permanent,
temporary, and volunteer workers and their families but also increasing the risk of community transmission in Merced County and surrounding counties, which are already experiencing very high levels of transmission. The California Department of Public Health supports the County’s action and agrees that Foster Farms must take immediate
steps to protects its workforce.

SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus causing the novel coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19), is a highly infectious virus that is easily spread from person-to-person, and often by those without any visible symptoms. For some people, including older adults and the most vulnerable members of the community, the virus can result in hospitalization and death.

COVID-19 has already infected over 7,500 Merced County residents and over 679,000 Californians. It has killed 112 Merced County residents and over 12,400 Californians, and those numbers grow on a daily basis. The nature of this virus requires that all Californians work together to safeguard our communities. The Foster Farms facilities in Livingston continue to experience ongoing and uncontained outbreaks in multiple buildings. At least 8 workers from these facilities have died so far. Of particular concern, other Foster Farms facilities in multiple counties also are experiencing outbreaks. Foster Farms must immediately take aggressive steps to prevent a repeat of what has happened in Livingston.

Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a State of Emergency and issued multiple Executive Orders, such as N-25-20, requiring all residents to heed the orders and guidance of local and state public health officials, to lower levels of transmission and reduce risk to the public. Since that time the California Department of Public Health has issued multiple orders and guidance documents to combat this unprecedented pandemic, including guidance for “Responding to COVID-19 in the Workplace,” the “COVID-19 Employer Playbook Supporting a Safer Environment for Workers and Customers,” and the “COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Food Packing and Processing.”

Compliance with local and state orders and guidance is critical to reducing the spread of the virus and protecting the health of Merced County and surrounding counties. It is also required by law. Under the Emergency Services Act, the Governor’s Executive Orders have the force of law. California Government Code §§ 8567, 8627, 8665. The Governor’s orders directing all Californians to follow the orders and guidance of state and local public health officials include yesterday’s order issued by the County.

I hope this letter helps Foster Farms to understand that it has a legal obligation to comply with public health orders and guidance, as well as an obligation to its workers and to the people of Merced County and surrounding counties, and that these obligations compel Foster Farms to immediately comply with the order issued yesterday by the County.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to Dr. Robert Harrison at [email protected], and he or a designee from our CDPH Occupational Health Branch will be able to assist you.

Sincerely,

Erica Pan, M.D., M.P.H.
Acting State Health Officer
CC: Merced County Department of Public Health, via email
Office of the Attorney General, via email

 

 

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