Ricketts: More Than 1,000 COVID-19 Cases Among Nebraska Food Processing Workers

May 7, 2020, 6:12 p.m. ·

Gov. Pete Ricketts at his news conference Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Governor Pete Ricketts said Thursday more than a thousand food processing workers in Nebraska have tested positive for COVID-19.

Thursday’s disclosure was the first time Gov. Ricketts has given an overall figure for how many workers in food processing plants have been infected. It’s a subject that’s become of intense interest, as outbreaks of COVID-19 have cropped up in communities around the state where meatpacking plants are located. Ricketts announced the figure during his daily news conference on how the state is dealing with the coronavirus.

“With regard to food processing, we have 1,005 people in those food processing facilities that have tested positive…so about a sixth, roughly, of the overall cases are testing from those food processing plants,” Ricketts said.

The state was reporting 6,771 cases as of Wednesday evening.

Until now, figures on outbreaks in the plants have largely come from local public health districts, not all of which disclose information the same way. Ricketts said the state will provide only aggregate data – not figures by individual plant – and urged public health districts to be cautious about what they disclose.

“Local health departments have the option to decide how they’re going to present that data. But what we recommend is for our local health departments to only present that data if it has been verified and you’ve got permission from that facility. Because what we’ve found is some people will go and say they work for a facility and they’ve tested positive, when they don’t work for that facility; some people maybe tested positive and they won’t tell you they work for that facility,” he said.

Asked how the state overcame those problems in coming up with aggregate figures, Ricketts acknowledged there could still be problems.

“Our data’s coming from the local public health districts. It could be in error because we are requiring on people to self-report. That’s one of the reasons why we want public health districts really to work to verify it,” he said.

Nebraska Health and Human Services spokesperson Leah Bucco-White said in an email late Thursday afternoon “Out of the 1,005 meatpacking employees who tested positive for COVID-19, three deaths have been reported so far.”

As of Wednesday evening, the state total for deaths from COVID-19 stood at 86. Of those, Ricketts said 57 have occurred among residents of long-term care facilities – nursing homes, skilled nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. He said there have been 267 cases of COVID-19 among residents there, and another 188 among staff, although officials said they were not aware of any staff deaths.

Also Thursday, Labor Commissioner John Albin was asked about people who say they’ve filed for unemployment compensation but haven’t yet received any payments.

Albin said the Labor Department has processed 81 percent of claims received since March 1, and paid 70 percent.

“I think we’re getting a passing grade. We’d like to pay it faster. I’m sure those that are waiting would like to be paid faster, but that’s our numbers,” he said.

Gov. Ricketts was also asked about people who have been tested under the new TestNebraska program that started Monday, but have not yet received their results.

“We just started this on Monday. Our goal is to try and get these turned around in 48 hours. But it’s a new process, so just like anything, the more you do something, the better you get at it,” he said.

Ricketts asked for patience, and also urged people to check their spam email filters, in case correspondence wound up there.

He also announced TestNebraska would be testing people in Lincoln from 8-6 on Friday and Saturday, at the Lancaster Events Center. People will have to have filled out an online assessment and received an email giving them a time window for testing.