Second Kansas prison employee dies; plant that makes sausage shuts down

photo by: AP File Photo

This Feb. 2, 2017 file photo, shows the exterior of the Lansing Correctional Center in Lansing, Kan. (Mark Rountree/The Leavenworth Times via AP, File)

Story updated at 2:26 p.m. Wednesday

TOPEKA — A Kansas plant that makes sausage has shut down after employees tested positive for the coronavirus, and an outbreak that has infected hundreds at the state’s largest prison has claimed the life of another worker.

“This has been an extremely difficult week for our agency and staff,” Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) Secretary Jeff Zmuda said Wednesday in a written statement.

The death Tuesday of the Lansing Correctional Facility worker in his 50s followed the death of another guard Monday. Three inmates also have died in the outbreak, which has infected 88 staff members and 728 of the approximately 1,710 men imprisoned there. The vast majority of the infected inmates, nearly 92%, have no symptoms.

Meanwhile, the shutdown at the Johnsonville plant in Holton, which employees about 230 workers, took effect Wednesday after five employees tested positive. Johnsonville didn’t announce when it plans to reopen the plant.

“It’s a tough decision to halt production, but we appreciate Johnsonville for doing this to help us stop the spread of COVID-19,” says Angie Reith, Jackson County Health Officer.

Johnsonville said all employees will continue to get paid, and downtime will be used to implement other safety measures, such as installing additional barriers between workstations where social distancing isn’t possible. The plant already had been requiring mandatory temperature checks before employees entered the facility and face masks and shields on the plant floor.

Johnsonville spokeswoman Stephanie Dlugopolski said in an email that the shutdown is expected to affect some fresh sausage deliveries to U.S. retailers, although the company will be able to keep up with demand because other facilities are “healthy and operating fully throughout the Midwest.”

Last month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring meatpacking plants to stay open amid the pandemic. Dlugopolski didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether the order affected the plant.

Kansas reported 7,468 cases Wednesday, up 352 or 4.9% from Monday, although the actual number is thought to be higher in part because of the initial limits in testing. The state counted 164 COVID-19 deaths, while Johns Hopkins University reported 184.

Two of the deaths have been among meatpacking workers, state health officials said Monday.

The meatpacking outbreaks have been particularly large in southwest Kansas. Ford, Seward and Finney counties together had 2,971 cases as of Monday, nearly 40% of the state’s total. They had the highest rates of cases per 1,000 residents in the state.

But some neighboring counties also are seeing higher-than-average rates of cases as well. Kearney County has 34 cases, for a rate of 8.9 for every 1,000 residents — far above the state’s figure of 2.56.

Dr. Drew Miller, a family physician in Lakin, said the cases there are tied to the meatpacking industry.

“We’re seeing community spread, or household spread and community spread, from those that were initially affected in the meatpacking plants, and I guess that’s the part that concerns us more than the young, healthy workforce population,” Miller said in a Zoom interview. “They expose their parents or others living in their house that have other chronic illnesses to the virus.”

He expects to Kearny County to diverge with the state when it reaches the second phase of Kelly’s plan to reopen the economy on May 18.

“It is an eerie thought, but as everybody else talks about reopening, it still feels like we’re looking COVID-19 straight in the eyes,” he said


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