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File staff photo by Doug Strickland / The Koch Foods chicken processing plant in Chattanooga

This story was updated Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at 10:15 p.m. with more information.

Downtown Chattanooga is home to three poultry processing and packaging plants where collectively nearly three dozen workers have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

At Koch Foods, which employs about 400 workers at its Cappella Street plant in Chattanooga, 28 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. At Pilgrim's Pride, which has about 1,200 employees at two downtown facilities, four workers have so far been infected with COVID-19.

The poultry plants are considered essential industries and President Donald Trump last month used the Defense Production Act to order poultry processors and other meat packaging plants to stay open despite concerns over the spread of the coronavirus at such facilities. Trump said operating such meat processors is critical to preventing a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on supermarket shelves.

Both Koch and Pilgrim's Pride are medically screening workers before they enter their plants in Chattanooga and sending home any workers with above-normal temperatures or other indications of the virus.

Pilgrim's Pride and its parent company, JBS USA, have invested more than $100 million in extra safety equipment and procedures at its meat plants since the coronavirus outbreak began earlier this year.

Koch said it has conducted COVID-19 tests on about 300 of its 400 workers in Chattanooga, including anyone who suspects they may have the virus or may have come in contact with one is COVID-19 positive. Those who test positive for the virus are sent home to self-quarantine and Koch spokesman Jim Gilliland said five to 10 workers at Koch have now recovered and received medical clearance to return to work this week.

"The safety of Koch's employees is of paramount importance, and Koch takes the threat of infection from COVID-19 very seriously," Gilliland said. "In addition to the numerous efforts Koch is already doing to mitigate the spread of the virus, Koch has implemented on-site COVID-19 testing for its employees."

Within the processing plants, both Koch and Pilgrim's Pride are providing washable masks for all workers and regularly sanitizing equipment, work areas and break rooms for employees, in accordance with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control.

"As always, even before COVID-19, PPE [personal protection equipment] is worn in the plant, that includes gowns, aprons, hair covering, beard covering [if necessary], ear protection, gloves, and gloves/hands are required to be washed prior to entering the production floor," Gilliland said.

Pilgrim's Pride and JBS are giving its workers a total of $50 mil- lion in bonuses for continuing to work during the coronavirus pandemic and the company continues to hire more workers.

"Since the arrival of the global coronavirus pandemic, our priority has been and remains the safety of our team members providing food for all of us," JBS USA Chief Executive Andre Nogueira said in a statement. "We recognize our responsibility as a food company during this crisis and we have continuously evolved our operations, based on the latest available guidance from experts, to improve our coronavirus preventive measures.

Despite the extra safety measures, however, employees at meat processing plants have had higher rates of infection and disproportionately more deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC estimates there were nearly 5,000 meatpacking workers infected with the virus as of the end of April. The Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit group that monitors the health of food and its workers, estimated last week that more than 17,000 meat processors and packers have been infected with the virus and at least 66 have died.

Because there is no nationwide database for COVID-19 infections or fatalities by industry, The New York Times reported this week that "outbreaks may be even more extensive" among meat packers.

In Chattanooga among employers that have disclosed testing results for the coronavirus, Koch Foods has the highest number so far, according to the Hamilton County Department of Health.

Workers within the processing plants often are unable to stay 6 feet apart as the CDC recommends for unrelated people during the coronavirus pandemic. But workers do wear protective clothing and facial coverings.

Koch said it is utilizing foggers with a sanitizer as an antiseptic in parts of the plant. Pilgrim's Pride said it is using ultraviolet germicidal air sanitation and plasma air technology to neutralize potential viruses in plant ventilation and air purification systems.

JBS USA and Pilgrim's said they have removed the most vulnerable populations from their facilities, with full pay and benefits, which has affected about 10% of the company's plant staff. Office personnel are being encouraged to work at home at both companies to limit the number of employees at each work site.

Noguira said the company's policy exceeds any recommended guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or any other official health authority.

"I could not be more proud of how our team members have responded to this challenging time," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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