In mid-June, three migrant workers staying at the Starved Rock Motor Inn in Streator, Ill., about 100 miles west of Chicago, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Upwards of 50 other workers were staying at the motel and had tested negative.
But after conducting testing, when the LaSalle County Health Department tried to reach the COVID-positive workers, they found their phone lines had been disconnected, according to newly obtained confidential state health reports. No contact had been made with the positive cases by the start of July. The motel said they were never aware or told of any positive coronavirus cases in their rooms and, to their knowledge, all of the workers left the motel healthy in mid-October.
It’s unclear where the migrant workers were employed. But LaSalle County, with 100,000 residents and roughly 1,500 farms, mostly consisting of corn and soybean crops, saw its numbers of COVID-19 deaths and clusters spike over the summer and, more recently, has seen its positivity rate climb from 7.5% in late October to more than 20% last week.
The confidential state health reports — obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting — cover outbreaks at a range of facilities, such as daycares and jails, from April to August in the Peoria and Rockford regions of the state.
The outlets previously made available similar data and reports covering March through September from the Springfield region. The new reports include details about outbreaks as well as hospitalization and fatality numbers, in northern Illinois, outside of hard-hit Chicago.
A few states and counties — such as Colorado, Kansas and Los Angeles County, California — have made detailed outbreak data available. The data lists specific locations with the number of associated COVID-19 cases.
Public health experts argue that more public information is generally better but they differ on the level of detail. Some have called for more "actionable" information to be made public so people can understand the severity and extent of outbreaks and plan accordingly.
Dolores Albarracin, a University of Illinois professor who studies health risk behaviors, said she wouldn't advocate for specific establishments to be released because it might lead to discrimination. However, she said, people should know what kinds of places and activities have led to outbreaks.
“Actionable information about avoiding similar forms of transmission should be provided for the community at large," she said. "Employees should be notified. Contact tracing should be promptly performed. Businesses should be fined and closed down.”
Public health experts previously told the Midwest Center not having detailed outbreak data publicly available is a problem because employees might not have been notified of outbreaks at their workplaces.
The data from the Illinois Department of Public Health is compiled by, and distributed to, county health departments but is not made public. Despite initially suggesting it would make such outbreak information public, both the Pritzker administration and IDPH have released limited info about the types of facilities with outbreaks, without identifying them by name or location.
While the latest reports don’t show new outbreaks reported across Illinois in the fall and winter, they do show how summertime outbreaks in rural swaths of the state contributed to community transmission of the virus and the severity of outbreaks in workplaces.
In response to questions about the outbreak at the Starved Rock Motor Inn, the LaSalle County Health Department said they work “very closely” with business and facility owners when they have an employee test positive for COVID-19. In accordance with the Illinois Department of Public Health, the county health department does not release specific details or names of facilities “in an effort to protect private health information.”
“If it is determined the general public is at risk, the health department would work with the business/establishment and the media to notify the public,” the statement said.
The Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Cases from daycares
The data and notes show multiple outbreaks at in-home daycares. In July, an in-home daycare provider in Bloomington, and her husband and daughter, tested positive after caring for 11 children in her home over the week. The three families exposed were notified and told the children needed to quarantine, but did not follow up with the notification by the McLean County Health Department. Notes indicate the department tried to contact the daycare on three more occasions to follow up and determine the licensing status of the home.
At the end of July, after a staff member tested positive at the Children’s Home Youth Farm in Peoria, all children at the facility were tested. However, “testing was optional for staff at that time.” As of Aug. 8, seven employees that “lived and worked in the same unit” had tested positive. The Children’s Home Youth Farm declined a request to comment.
The Peoria Health Department said they “utilize the state system to report outbreaks” and conducted investigations to identify close contacts for quarantine while staff reviewed mitigation efforts.
Outbreaks due to private gatherings were also detailed. A pool party in mid-July in Streator led to six attendees testing positive for COVID-19 but “getting names and information for attendees has proven difficult as those involved are not fully cooperating,” the notes stated.
A private bachelor party from Galesburg travelled to Darlington and Wisconsin for trail riding. The trip led to three cases and “one hospitalization after one attendee was symptomatic on route.”
Additionally, the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center — the only active U.S. foundry — had eight cases and two hospitalizations, as of July 27. An Army spokesperson said they do not provide numbers for specific Army installations or hospitalizations for “operational security reasons” but follow health guidance from the Department of Defense, CDC and the Department of State.
Deaths in prisons
While the Illinois Department of Corrections publishes COVID-19 case numbers of staff and inmates on its online dashboard, it does not include hospitalization and fatality numbers.
Notable findings in the regional data from July and August include four hospitalizations and one death at Pontiac Correctional Center, five hospitalizations at the Sheridan Correctional Center August and two hospitalizations at the East Moline Correctional Center.
The Illinois Department of Corrections shared partial data on facility hospitalizations with the Midwest Center that showed one hospitalization at the East Moline Center and three deaths within four days in October. At the Pontiac Correctional Center, there was one death in March and one in October.
IDOC said it is working to expand the data available on its website and that IDPH releases the state’s COVID deaths in its press releases — they are not published on its online dashboard — but does not specify incarcerated persons or IDOC staff.
Notes also indicate the fear of further spread in detention facilities.
On April 7, two employees at the LaSalle County Juvenile Detention Center — where there were two child inmates — had tested positive for COVID-19 but it was “unknown” at the time how many employees were potentially exposed.
The facility was “trying to have a judge release the kids” and close the facility to prevent further spread, according to health department notes. Jacob Holland, director of the La Salle County Detention Home, said there was one additional positive case among staff and the children were released on April 9.
Hospitalizations tied to food processing plants
The newly obtained reports include data on hospitalization and death numbers from outbreaks at meatpacking plants including Tyson and Smithfield— the worst meatpacking outbreaks in the state — that has not previously been made public. They also include notes that indicate the possible extent of community spread, as employees at these facilities lived in multiple counties.
The list of facility outbreaks previously reported by the Midwest Center showed that Tyson in Joslin had 202 confirmed positive cases. But recently-obtained data also indicates there had been 20 hospitalizations and three deaths associated with the outbreak. According to health department notes, employees at the Joslin facility lived across seven Illinois counties, with the majority in Rock Island.
In a statement, Tyson said that “the number of positive cases involving our team members at our Joslin facility is at a level similar to those currently in the community” and that they have worked closely with local and state health officers.
As of Sept. 30, Smithfield in Monmouth had 188 confirmed cases but the data shows there were also five hospitalizations, as of Aug. 8. Smithfield said that they have partnered with local and state health department departments to ensure COVID-19 cases among their employees were “appropriately reported according to the prevailing guidance.”
As of July 12, two workers from the DeKalb County Packing Company were also hospitalized and 20 cases were reported at Calihan Pork Processors, from which employees were infected in three Illinois counties, with the majority in Peoria.
Other food facility outbreaks include Snak King in Freeport, which had six hospitalizations and one death, and Rochelle Foods, which had five hospitalizations and one death. Rochelle Foods said that they have worked with a “spirit of transparency” with health departments but their recorded number of hospitalizations is lower than the region data, which “could be attributed to a team member not sharing a hospitalization with us due to privacy laws.”
At the end of April, there were also four cases and two hospitalizations at Nuestro Queso, a cheese company in Kent County, where, according to notes, all confirmed cases were Hispanic workers that lived and worked together. Health department notes show the company voluntarily shut down for two weeks so employees could self-isolate. But, according to data published by the Midwest Center, Nuestro Queso had 41 COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 30. The company declined a request to comment.
The data will be made publicly available on https://www.documentingcovid19.io.
The Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation is a collaborative FOIA journalism effort to compile newsworthy records and data related to the coronavirus pandemic. For more information, email email@example.com.
This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The Midwest Center is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. Gannett funds a fellowship at the Midwest Center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.