Kansas altered meatpacking guidance to let possibly exposed workers stay on the job


By Jonathan Shorman and Kevin Hardy, The Wichita Eagle (KS)

May 20, 2020


TOPEKA | After industry executives repeatedly raised the issue with the state’s top agricultural official, Kansas relaxed its quarantine guidelines so meatpacking workers potentially exposed to the coronavirus could stay on the job.


Text messages and emails obtained by The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle show that executives at Tyson and National Beef, which employ thousands at massive plants in southwest Kansas, pushed back at Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam over the guidelines.


As the number of workers who tested positive for COVID-19 climbed, the companies drew Beam’s attention to more lenient guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


“The sooner we get the CDC new guidance in place the better,” National Beef chief operating officer Terry Wilkerson texted Beam on April 20, adding he had just heard two meatpacking plants elsewhere in the country were shutting down.


Ultimately, Kansas — which processes more than a quarter of the nation’s beef — shifted its guidance to align more closely with the federal agency as COVID-19 swept through the state’s plants. Nearly 2,000 people have been infected from outbreaks linked to the state’s meatpacking plants and six people have died.


The new Kansas guidelines, last updated May 2, allow meatpacking employees who have come into close contact with positive cases to continue working as long as they showed no symptoms and took precautions, such as wearing a mask. The state had previously advised contacts to quarantine for two weeks.


“We are very happy with the guidance from KDHE,” Ruth Bradley, manager of state and local government relations at Tyson, texted Beam on April 30.


Prior to the change, Beam privately suggested Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman, who has been leading the state’s pandemic health response, was resisting relaxation of the guidelines...


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