This story is co-published with USA TODAY and is embargoed for reprint until Jan. 28, 2021.
On May 1, after testing found at least 123 COVID-19 cases out of 900 workers at the Rochelle Foods plant in northern Illinois, Kyle Auman, the Ogle County Health Department director, was summoned to a conference call.
On the emailed invite: six Trump administration political appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one infectious disease expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several top officials at the Illinois Department of Public Health and the governor’s office – as well as lawyers and executives from Rochelle Foods.
At the time, Rochelle Foods, a subsidiary of Hormel that produces deli meats and bacon, had been shut for more than a week by Auman’s health department. Although CDC guidelines for essential workers included masks and social distancing, and cases at the plant were increasing, some workers were “still figuring out how to wear them,” Auman said.
To Auman, Rochelle Foods had already become a source of COVID-19 infections, at least to plant workers and their families. To date, three employees have been hospitalized and another has died after contracting the virus.
But on the conference call, the USDA staffers told Auman he had no authority to investigate or keep plants like Rochelle closed. They cited President Donald Trump’s April 28 executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep food-processing facilities operating despite mounting reports of worker infections and deaths.
“We essentially had to leave Rochelle Foods alone,” Auman said in an interview. “They were using the act to keep people working, not to protect public health.”
After the conference call, Auman said, he felt “very manipulated.”
In response to questions from reporters, the USDA said in a statement that it sought to offer help and “foster a conversation so that all the parties could work out a path forward that ensures the safety of the dedicated workers in the facility and continuity of operations.”
Rochelle Foods reopened on May 4 and, since then, no coronavirus cases have been publicly reported. But, behind closed doors, the county health department has been fighting coronavirus outbreaks at Rochelle Foods ever since.
A second rash of infections this fall went unreported to anyone outside the company and local health department. By mid-September, at least 137 COVID-19 cases had been reported at the plant in Rochelle.
This number is likely higher now, according to hundreds of internal health department emails and company summaries of sickened workers, along with interviews with local officials and a previously unreported 24-page CDC memo of the Rochelle plant, obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Across the country, at least 45,000 COVID-19 cases have been tied to meatpacking plants and at least 239 workers have died, according to Midwest Center tracking. Since Trump’s executive order, the CDC and USDA have consistently pushed for food and meat-processing plants to remain open.
But labor groups say the pressure applied by federal regulators left resource-strapped local health departments in a tough spot: Tasked with ensuring the safety of workers and the larger community, they were unable to close the very workplaces contributing to the spread.
“The spin from the White House was that they can’t close meatpacking plants,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior adviser in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration who is now worker safety director at the National Employment Law Project.
“In Illinois, the guidance for the meat industry was clear but the feds weakened the guidance," Berkowitz said. “At the end of the day, the meat industry can have huge outbreaks that they were neither prepared for, nor eager to fix, and it’s a failure by the government to implement the right protections for workers.”
In response to questions for this story, Rochelle Foods said it has spent $80 million on safety measures related to the coronavirus and defends its record, saying, in part, that “like so many food-production companies, Rochelle Foods had one mission, to keep team members safe from a virus that no one knew how to completely mitigate — including the communities in which we have operations. The work we did in those earliest days kept people safe. It is easy to go back and judge nearly a year later, but we remain confident that we did everything we could to put safety first.”
Since its closure, the Rochelle facility has implemented several protective measures, including an automated body temperature camera scanning system, which is monitored around the clock, and staggered shift times. Each employee also must wear three layers of protection: a face mask, a face shield and either a physical barrier or 6 feet of separation between workers. And workers are still paid if they get sick or are in quarantine.
The company also said it had encouraged workers to wear masks before the closure, starting on April 7. It made them a requirement starting on April 14 – the day of Auman’s visit, after which he decided to shutter the plant.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, too, issued an executive order that included mask mandates for workers and staggered shifts for manufacturers. That went into effect on April 30.
Neither Pritzker‘s office nor the CDC responded to requests for comment for this story.
The NDA: ‘A more formal suppression tactic’
Throughout the pandemic, the Ogle County Health Department and Rochelle Foods have had a contentious relationship, which is spelled out in hundreds of emails obtained through open-records requests.
And like many meatpacking and food-processing companies, Rochelle Foods has gone to great lengths to protect its corporate reputation during the pandemic. To boost its image, Hormel began giving away bacon-scented face masks in October and has taken to registering a domain to help publicize its “KEEP COVID OUT” employee program.
When the health department ordered the closure of the Rochelle plant in April, the company voluntarily agreed. But in a letter to the health department from its outside attorney, the company made clear it did not agree with a key term cited in the state law used to order its closure. The letter made references to “additional formal legal steps” that both sides could take.
During its first outbreak in mid-April, a press release prepared by the Ogle County Health Department to announce employee testing was abruptly cancelled after the company complained to local officials about bad publicity.
Jacob Bylund, a partner at Faegre Drinker, a law firm hired by Rochelle Foods, wrote to several county health departments and objected to the press release, noting that 180 employees had yet to have their test results returned.
In late May, Rochelle Foods requested that the CDC team tasked with inspecting the plant sign non-disclosure agreements to avoid the leaking of any confidential information. The CDC refused to sign but told the company that under the Federal Trade Secret Act, Federal Tort Claims Act and the Freedom of Information Act, it would be unlikely any such trade secrets would be disclosed.
After a brief delay, the CDC conducted its inspection. Rochelle Foods says its NDAs are “a common practice as a safeguard to any proprietary equipment or materials in the plant. It had nothing to do with COVID-19.”
Labor experts said Rochelle’s NDA request is consistent with meatpacking companies' general lack of transparency, which has become heightened during the pandemic.
“This is a more formal suppression tactic that I have not seen,” said Brent Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice, where he works to reform the industrial agriculture system. “But it is part of a broader strategy among various meat-processing corporations to suppress information about outbreaks at their plants.”
Meanwhile, complaints from plant workers to the local health department this fall had a consistent theme: The company was allowing, but not forcing, symptomatic employees to work, they claimed.
On Oct. 7, Auman wrote to the plant manager, Scott T. Morrison, that “cases continue to grow and do not seem to be under control.”
Two days later, Auman wrote to Rochelle Foods: “My only thought to get this under control is another two week pause!”
The virus was still raging across northern Illinois. Ogle County’s positivity rate jumped from 8% on Oct. 16 to nearly 20% a month later, on Nov. 13 – when cases in the county peaked. Since October, there have been 53 deaths in Ogle County, compared to just six in the preceding eight months, according to the county health department.
A few days after Auman’s closure threat, another conference call was scheduled. This time, the only callers on the line were representatives of Rochelle Foods, the Ogle County Health Department and the city officials from Rochelle.
The takeaway was decidedly different this time than in May: Rochelle Foods pledged to reduce the case positivity rate coming out of the plant.
“I do feel Rochelle Foods has cooperated with our requests,” said Rochelle’s city manager, Jeffrey A. Fiegenschuh.
‘It did contribute to infections here locally’
On a recent Monday afternoon in January, most of downtown Rochelle's restaurants and shops were empty, and Christmas decorations still hung from lampposts. Rochelle, a city of 9,100 about 80 miles west of Chicago and 25 miles south of Rockford, began as a farming community in the 1850s, serving as a critical rail and then a highway stop for corn and wheat shipments headed east.
Known as “Hub City,” Rochelle is a one-day drive from more than 80 million American households.
Hormel, perhaps best known for its Jenny-O turkey and Skippy peanut butter brands, purchased Rochelle Foods in 1993. The 400,000-square-foot Rochelle Foods plant sits just outside a two-block downtown area.
With its 900 employees and contract workers, Rochelle Foods is the city’s largest employer.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact source of community COVID-19 transmission, Auman said, “in a community the size of Rochelle, [the first outbreak] had a huge impact on the spread. There's no smoking gun but I can say it did contribute to infections here locally."
The early-warning signs had been visible at Rochelle Foods.
Sonia Villanueva Áviles worked on the meatpacking line at Rochelle Foods for more than a decade. When coronavirus cases were first discovered at the plant in early April, she worried that her diabetes made her more vulnerable, said her daughter, Joseling Villanueva.
Rochelle Foods didn’t require masks at the time.
Originally from El Salvador, Sonia Villanueva was a single mother who worked to provide for her four children and five grandchildren. She had been named named “Employee of the Month” several times over the years, her daughter said.
On April 9 or 10, Sonia Villanueva developed a fever. She was sent home from work and provided a COVID-19 test, which came back positive two days later, her daughter said.
It was around the same time that Auman first broached the idea of a two-week plant closure with Hormel, according to emails from April 9. Further delays could lead to the virus spreading through Rochelle, Auman reasoned.
It would be eight days before the plant shuttered. By that time, Sonia Villanueva was already in the hospital. Her condition had quickly deteriorated four days after being sent home. When her daughter dropped her off, the hospital staff would not let her accompany her mother. It was the last time they saw each other in person.
Sonia Villanueva mother died May 24 at the age of 54.
Rochelle Foods said they couldn’t confirm Sonia Villanueva died of coronavirus because the family never provided a final cause of death. But her daughter said no one from Rochelle Foods ever asked.
“The only thing they sent was a bouquet of flowers,” Joseling Villanueva said.
Following Sonia Villanueva’s death, a CDC field team was dispatched to Rochelle. The agency produced a 24-page report on its visit, mostly detailing the demographics of who worked there and what employees knew about the virus. It also noted that Rochelle had instituted some recommended changes.
Rochelle Foods’ workers live in 15 different Illinois counties, according to CDC statistics, and roughly half are Latino. Among those infected with the virus, the plant’s Latino and Burmese workers have been hit especially hard.
Nearly 40% of those surveyed also had at least one family member who works at Rochelle Foods. The plant has a large Burmese population, like many food-processing plants in the Midwest, and those workers scored the lowest when asked by CDC investigators about their personal knowledge of COVID symptoms. Burmese workers also reported having the largest average household size, with 6.5 people per home, followed by Latino workers with 4.4 family members.
Despite the mixed messages from federal and state health officials, Auman said, a state official eventually told him that Rochelle Foods could be closed a second time, if it was necessary for public health and the plant had another outbreak.
But the Illinois Department of Public Health defines a COVID-19 outbreak as at least five linked cases that had contact with one another, such as working on the same shift on the same day. They also have to be positive during each of their respective infectious periods.
“We were never able to link five at the same time,” Auman said.
For its part, the Illinois Department of Public Health said in a statement that it wanted to keep businesses operating “as safely as possible” without them posing a “public health threat.” The agency weighed the federal executive order with state laws.
Ultimately, the state health department developed and shared its own guidance and worked with local health departments to implement it. In practice, local health officials across Illinois said, the mixed messages from the federal government and state health department have resulted in delays and a weakening of existing rules.
‘Way too many positives for us to blame on community spread’
Over five weeks in September and October, at least 50 Rochelle Foods workers in Ogle County tested positive for the virus, during a time when local infections had waned. But it wasn’t classified by the state as an outbreak.
In neighboring Whiteside County, where 49 Rochelle Foods workers live, according to CDC records, at least 13 people somehow connected to the plant have contracted the coronavirus.
Other neighboring counties either declined to provide Rochelle Foods-linked case counts or referred to the IDPH, which does not identify specific outbreak locations.
Company officials blamed the second spike in worker infections on “community spread.” But internal contact tracing notes from Rochelle Foods are much less clear, with some employees reporting that they potentially contracted the virus from people outside the plant. Others said they were unsure how they got it, while noting they carpooled and went to offsite parties with coworkers.
Rochelle Foods claimed that its contact tracing investigations show “that nearly every team member who knew the source and tested positive for COVID-19, cited social or family interactions or other experiences outside the plant as the likely source of the infection.”
In a statement, the company said: “We understand the story you are trying to tell, but in this case, it simply isn’t true and we will rigorously defend the facts.”
But those same contact tracing summaries – 16 of which were obtained through open-records requests to the Ogle County Health Department – show that many employees didn’t know how they were exposed to the virus, or didn’t report it to HR or their managers. The contact tracing summaries were usually just a few sentences and sent to the Ogle County Health Department by the plant’s manager.
The individual stories of those infected – and those they exposed – underscore how the Rochelle plant’s outbreak led to much larger spread of the virus in Ogle County, which has one of the highest per-capita COVID positivity rates in Illinois.
In September, complaints from sick employees poured into the Ogle County Health Department, emails show. After one complained that sick employees were still working when they should be in quarantine, the county’s emergency preparedness director, Cherie Rucker, wrote that “things are out of hand. They have WAY too many positives for us to blame on community spread any longer.”
Rochelle said it does not allow employees to work after a positive result and pays workers to stay home.
Employees contacted by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting said that while the plant was taking many precautions to avoid spreading the virus, some cases slipped through the cracks.
Further testimonies reveal the extent to which the virus travelled around the community and beyond.
One employee took a family trip to an apple orchard, where his girlfriend started experiencing symptoms. They both later tested positive. Another employee reported carpooling with a coworker and accompanying her husband to a dialysis appointment. She was unsure how she ultimately contracted the virus. One worker told the company that all four of her children showed symptoms of COVID in early September and her brother and parents tested positive.
But the summaries are short on details, and interviews with employees revealed inconsistencies or omitted details, such as the dates symptoms started.
Rochelle Foods now has in-house testing. But the Ogle County Health Department still has concerns the company is “not reporting cases in a timely fashion” and “potentially skewing information” in their case investigations.
Asked what would have helped from the start, Auman said a "unified message" from the federal government, one that would have resonated with large food plants and small independent stores alike.
"It left the state with a piecemeal plan,” he said. “We hear all the time from people that you can't control the virus. But that’s what we do in public health. What’s especially hard, in a small local economy, is to get businesses to comply."
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. USA TODAY is funding a fellowship at the Center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.