A surge of coronavirus cases in the Texas Panhandle, a crucial region for the nation’s beef supply, has federal officials sending help to Amarillo to try to control rising numbers of infections over the past week, the mayor said Monday.
The Amarillo area is responsible for 25% of the nation’s fed beef supply, Mayor Ginger Nelson said, as the community joins others in the Midwest where the virus has sickened hundreds of meatpacking workers and threatens to disrupt the nation’s supply of pork and beef.
In Texas, more than 240 cases are linked to a JBS USA plant in Moore County, according to Lara Anton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has previously singled out the county as an area of concern.
Confirmed cases in neighboring Potter County have doubled over the past week to more than 800, and at least nine people have died.
“I’m hopeful they will be able to help us box in where our current hot spots are,” Nelson said of the strike force coming to the area, which she expected to arrive soon as Monday. “So that we can protect our hospital capacity and begin to strategize why it is our city is having the numbers that we’re having.”
JBS USA spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said the company, although notified about the task force, does not know what their plan is or how it will affect the plant.
Meanwhile, “the facility is open and operating, despite increased absenteeism in recent weeks. We are doing our best to safely provide food for the country during a challenging time,” she said in an email.
Full coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it impacts you
Outbreaks have hit meat plants across the county. President Donald Trump has ordered them to remain open, while on Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called the plants among “the most dangerous places there are right now.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Friday said more than 4,900 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 20 who died. Not all states provided data.
The CDC researchers cited risks including difficulties with physical distancing and hygiene, and crowded living and transportation conditions.
Anton said a team of health experts, including those with the CDC, will be visiting processing plants in the Panhandle this week to assess and recommend safeguards.