‘What the heck is going on?’ County supervisors demand answers on Vernon coronavirus outbreaks
Alarmed by a rising number of coronavirus infections among meatpacking workers in Vernon, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave local health officials and plant operators one week to review worker safety protocols and report back.
The order, introduced by Supervisor Hilda Solis and passed by a 5-0 vote, followed reports this weekend of coronavirus clusters in at least nine facilities in the small industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles, including five meatpacking plants.
“I was very alarmed about what I heard, and thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Solis said in an interview after the supervisors’ Tuesday meeting.
According to county health officials, the largest outbreak was at the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant, which produces the Dodger Dog. There, 153 of 1,837 employees tested positive for COVID-19 between March and May, county officials said.
More than 200 workers have tested positive across the nine facilities, reflecting a broader national trend in which industrial workers, particularly those in the food industry, have been hit hard by the pandemic.
On Monday, the union that represents workers at the Farmer John plant called for it to be shuttered for cleaning and a review of protocols to keep workers safe. The company has said it already has taken measures to keep employees safe that exceed recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In its motion Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors ordered personnel in the county’s health department to work with city and union officials and the plant operators to outline the efforts that have been taken already, as well as any programs to support workers, their families and the broader Southeast Los Angeles community being impacted by the outbreaks.
They also ordered a review of city and county jurisdiction over the Vernon facilities, and to assess whether current protocols for reducing outbreaks are appropriate.
“I’m not coming as a bully or anything like that,” Solis said. “It’s about trying to resolve this challenge that we have.”
In a statement, the city of Vernon said it “will continue to do everything in its power to work with all parties involved to ensure compliance and safety.”
Smithfield did not respond to a request for comment on the board’s motion.
Solis said she has spoken to UFCW Local 770 union officials who represent workers in the company’s Vernon plant, and agreed with them that more information about control measures within the facilities is needed.
She also said more clarity is needed as to which government entities have oversight over such measures, and other issues related to addressing the current threat.
While Vernon has its own health department, it lacks the capacity to respond to such a major crisis and can’t provide the sort of contact tracing needed to ensure large clusters of a highly contagious virus don’t spread more widely into the surrounding communities, Solis said.
“We’re going to do what we can to try to protect the workers and set better standards,” Solis said.
Los Angeles Times reporter Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this article.
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