Ten months after the start of the pandemic, it was a familiar refrain for the Rochelle Foods plant in northern Illinois: An infected worker allegedly told a plant manager in mid-January that he was feeling better, 10 days after his positive test. He could return to work, a plant manager said, given it had been the minimum amount of time needed to quarantine under state and federal guidelines. 

But the next day, he told the county health department that was wrong and he was actually still feeling sick.

Whatever caused the confusion, the end result was the same: The plant worker had to stay home until his new, longer quarantine period ended. 

“His current symptoms indicate he can still be contagious, so in order to protect the other employees at Hormel Rochelle Foods, he will need to stay isolated until those start improving,” the contact tracer wrote.

Rochelle Foods, a subsidiary of Hormel that produces deli meats and bacon and employs approximately 900 people, has been dogged with COVID-19 outbreaks and work complaints about plant conditions since April. “Around 200” workers have been infected with the virus, according to the company. Three workers have been hospitalized and another died in May. 

But the January quarantine issue, spelled out in emails obtained by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, underscore the delicate and sometimes confusing relationship between county health departments and meatpacking and food-processing facilities, which are essential businesses and enjoy protections that other businesses do not. The Trump administration’s Department of Agriculture had pushed Ogle County, and others across the country, to keep its plants up and running.

In turn, local health departments and meatpacking plants are left to hash out the particulars of shifting state and federal rules. 

[Read more: The Trump Administration told an Illinois health department to leave Rochelle Foods alone. Then a second COVID-19 outbreak struck the plant.]

Some of the thornier issues: how long workers should quarantine, based on the dates of positive tests and the onset of symptoms; how to gauge whether symptoms, like a fever or runny nose, are actually improving or are just lingering; and, perhaps most problematic, trusting that the information provided by companies and their employees to each other and outside health authorities is accurate and complete, especially given language barriers and a lack of faith in each other. 

That trust has been tested at Rochelle Foods, with company managers believing that at least some of their employees are gaming the COVID-19 protocols in an attempt to stay on paid leave. 

In response to questions, Rochelle Foods noted that, since it pays COVID-infected employees during their quarantine and recovery periods, “there is no incentive for a team member who still has symptoms to return to work.”

Clear federal guidance could be a useful tool in eliminating confusion around these gray-area issues, said Jose Oliva, campaigns director for HEAL Food Alliance, a coalition of activist groups advocating for reforms in the American food system. 

“If we knew what to do in every state, in every county, then we wouldn’t be confused,” he said. “There wouldn’t be this throwing your hands up and saying ‘Well, we’re doing our best.’”

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On first glance, confusion around one or two workers’ coronavirus cases may not seem like a big deal, Oliva added. But these workers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color, are “deeply tied to their communities,” and what may seem like a small oversight can quickly become a devastating outbreak. 

At Rochelle Foods, roughly half of the plant’s employees are Latino and there is also a significant population from Myanmar.

Rochelle Foods’ real COVID outbreak number is far higher than publicly reported

Rochelle Foods has gone through two waves of coronavirus outbreaks, one in March and April and another this fall, which went unreported to the public, as the Midwest Center and Brown Institute reported

After that investigation was published, the company acknowledged to local TV station WREX that “around 200 employees” had contracted the coronavirus, far higher than what was previously made public. In response to questions for this story, Rochelle Foods and its parent company, Hormel, declined to give an exact figure of the plant’s COVID-19 infections.

According to Midwest Center tracking, there have been at least 45,000 coronavirus cases and at least 240 deaths among meatpacking workers in the U.S. 

Sometimes lost in the infection and death numbers are the individual stories of those who have been impacted the most.

The Rochelle Foods employee who died, Sonia Villanueva Áviles, filed a state workers’ compensation claim on the day she became sick with the virus, April 9, according to records. That claim is still ongoing after her May 24 death. 

Villanueva, who died at 54 and suffered from diabetes, was originally from El Salvador, a single mother to three children and a Rochelle Foods employee who worked on the meatpacking line for 10 years.

In connection with the workers’ compensation claim, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation has been served a subpoena from the law firm representing Villanueva’s family.

The subpoena, which requests unpublished material obtained through open-records requests, is still being reviewed. The Villanueva family’s law firm, Jones & Black, has also sent subpoenas to Rochelle Foods, for pandemic-related internal records, and the Rochelle Police Department.

Short supply delays employee vaccinations

The fall outbreak coincided with “almost daily” complaints about Rochelle Foods to the Ogle County Health Department, according to internal emails obtained through open-records requests. Since then, city and county officials say Rochelle Foods has improved its working relationship and the rate of infections has slowed. 

But newly-released emails also show that the Ogle County Health Department and Rochelle Foods have, so far, failed to come to terms on a way to vaccinate plant workers. 

The issues there, like in other parts of the country, stem from the limited amount of vaccine distributed locally.

Rochelle Foods has projected that 600 of its 900 plant workers would want to be vaccinated and, initially, the health department and plant discussed a plan to set up a special vaccine clinic for those workers. 

But that plan never materialized, with Ogle County opting to focus its limited vaccine doses on school staffers and another, unnamed partner potentially setting up an onsite clinic for them.

Plant workers became eligible for the vaccine on Jan. 25 when Illinois moved into phase 1B of the state’s vaccination administration plan. Rochelle Foods said it is “eager and ready to implement vaccinations as soon as we are able to get doses” but, in a nod to the contentious relationship with the county and a lack of available details, said in a statement, “We began educating our team members on vaccine safety in multiple languages, even before an official vaccine was available. Every email (Ogle County Health Department Director Kyle Auman) sends get a response. We can’t say the same for him.”

The issue, according to Auman, is vaccine supply; 600 doses is Ogle County’s current weekly allocation and vaccine appointments are booked out until the middle of March. 

“We are hopeful that with the support of our partners and a potential increase in vaccine allocations in the near future that OCHD and/or our partners will be going onsite to larger manufacturing facilities within the next month or so,” Auman said in a statement. “We have not forgotten about the large manufacturers, we simply do not have enough vaccine or other resources to vaccine every facility all at once.”

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 info@documentingcovid19.io

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