SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The coronavirus outbreak at the now-shuttered Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls has claimed the life of one of its workers, as officials say cases link to the facility have surged past 700 on Thursday, April 16.
While state officials would only confirm the new COVID-19 fatality was a male in his 60s in Minnehaha County, providing limited information due to privacy concerns. But the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls identified the victim as 64-year-old Augustín Rodriguez, from interviews with his wife, Angelita Rodriguez. He was hospitalized April 4 and died on Tuesday, April 14.
State officials identified 88 more workers infected with the virus, for a total of 598 cases. Officials have discovered another 135 infected individuals among those in close-contact with the workers, such as family members, for a total of 733 cases linked to the pork plant.
A significant number of the 3,700-strong Smithfield workforce are immigrants and refugees, a fact that has helped fuel a backlash in Sioux Falls, the state's largest city. In a Thursday morning Facebook Live post, Mayor Paul TenHaken called for city residents to not vilify Smithfield or its workers as enemies.
"There is a underlying sense of almost treating Smithfield employees like lepers in our community right now, and that's not appropriate," he said. "There's no one business that's the enemy in this. There's no one individual, class, race or anything that is the enemy. COVID is the enemy. We're all working together to defeat it."
Pending: A city stay-home order
The Sioux Falls City Council gave unanimous initial approval to a two-week stay-at-home order on Wednesday. But the meeting sparked significant debate among councilors and community members over the order. Many questioned whether the legality of the order and feared its costs on local businesses.
But others had more identity-based concerns. Lora Hubbel, a former state representative, targeted Smithfield, saying the "Chinese-owned company, infected with the Chinese virus, was not doing its job." Smithfield Foods is based in Virginia and is a subsidiary of China-based WH Group. The coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan, China.
Another city resident, Sierra Broussard, said city officials should be more aggressive in monitoring the broader immigrant and refugee community in the city, specifically mentioning unlicensed massage parlors.
"When we're done with this, we need to get passionate about our illegal immigrants spreading diseases and prostitution in businesses here in Sioux Falls, because that seems to be on the back-burner a lot here," she said.
The council will consider implementing the order at a meeting next week. The order would be enforceable, with violators facing a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
TenHaken had previously asked Gov. Kristi Noem for a shelter-at-home order for Minnehaha and Lincoln counties, which contain Sioux Falls. Noem rejected his request.
The city is expected to see a mid-May peak of coronavirus cases, according to modeling from state and health system officials. The virus is clearly loose in the city. State health officials are issuing almost daily notices of newly discovered cases among workers at area businesses.
When to re-open the pork plant?
Smithfield Foods closed its Sioux Falls processing plant indefinitely Wednesday, April 15, although state and federal officials said they're seeking to re-open the plant as soon as possible, since it's been designated an essential part of the nation's food supply.
Re-opening the plant will largely rest on two concerns: plant safety and worker testing.
A team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was touring the plant Thursday. Noem said the team would issue a report, which she would release to the public.
Meanwhile, public health teams continue to test those linked to the plant. State officials have said they're testing aggressively, but also said Thursday they're not testing anyone without COVID-19 symptoms. The virus is known to move undetected, carried and passed on by those without symptoms.
The state Department of Health reported Thursday that 1,311 South Dakotans have been tested positive for the coronavirus. Fifty five state residents diagnosed with the illness have been hospitalized, seven have died and 373 have recovered. State, private and hospital labs have processed 10,552 tests of South Dakotans.
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