Spokesman: Rhea County, Tennessee, farm workers pose no threat to the community

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ The Rhea County Health Department is located in Evensville, Tenn.

The spokesman for a Rhea County, Tennessee, farm where numerous migrant workers were confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 said Thursday there is absolutely no threat to the community.

Jon Schwalls, spokesman for Henderson Farms, said the migrant workers at the facility have been living on the farm since they arrived from Mexico on March 28 and none have left the property.

"At that time we already as a company were taking precautions to keep people safe. Since their arrival, they have never been in the community. They haven't been outside the property," Schwalls said. "The testing was done on site by the Rhea County Health Department."

Those positive test results among workers at the farm drove the number of positive cases in Rhea County from a dozen to almost 200.

The workers were tested as a group on May 18 and results were returned May 19 and 20, Schwalls said. The workers, all men mostly under 50, showed no symptoms before or after being tested, he said.

"They've required no medical treatment, and the Rhea County Health Department continues daily to monitor the situation and everyone has remained healthy," Schwalls said.

He said the workers have been isolated on the farm for seven weeks, so it's certain they contracted the virus after they got to Rhea County. They live on site in "OSHA-approved, Tennessee Department of Labor-certified housing," Schwalls said. Housing at the farm is certified by the state annually, he said.

The farm workers' positive cases created a 14-fold jump last week in the county's case count, and Rhea County Executive George Thacker has been anticipating another increase in positive cases in the coming days.

(Times Free Press Coronavirus Tracker)

On Thursday, Thacker said he's still looking ahead to more developments as the state's daily virus update showed an uptick in confirmations of just one case from Wednesday, 197 to 198. Thacker raised the alarm last week in a video posted on social media as he anticipated what would become a 1,350% jump in confirmed cases arising from the positive tests of the asymptomatic workers at the farm. A little more than 33,000 people live in Rhea County, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The county has had no reported COVID-19-related deaths.

(READ MORE: Where to get tested for COVID-19 in the Chattanooga region and other frequently asked questions)

Tennessee epidemiologist Dr. John Dunn told the Times Free Press recently that state officials were working closely with Rhea County health officials and Henderson Farms' managers, and he noted large numbers of people in one place adds risk.

"Some of our outbreaks we've seen across the state related to processing facilities, any time you have a large aggregation of people it increases the risk of transmission," Dunn said. "So we're very aware and working with our local partners on isolation and quarantine as appropriately as we would any other type of outbreak."

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tennessee increased to 21,679 on Thursday, up 373 from Wednesday's total of 21,306, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update. There have been 356 deaths from the virus statewide.

In Tennessee, Bledsoe County has reported 608 cases and one death; Bradley County 108 cases and one death; Coffee County 68 cases and no deaths; Franklin County 49 cases and one death; Grundy County 32 cases and one death; Marion County 38 cases and one death; McMinn County 136 cases and 14 deaths; Meigs County 26 cases and no deaths; and Polk County 15 cases and no deaths. While Rhea increased by one case from Wednesday's total, Bradley increased by three, Coffee by two, Marion by one and Meigs by one, records show.

All other Southeast Tennessee rural counties remained the same, while Hamilton County reported 719 confirmed cases, up from 670 on Wednesday's count.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.