16 test positive at Prestage

Company commits two days to testing all employees

-Messenger file photo by Chad Thompson
Prestage Foods of Iowa reported 16 cases of COVID-19 at its plant near Eagle Grove on Monday.

EAGLE GROVE — Wright County officials confirmed on Monday morning that 16 employees at the Prestage Foods of Iowa pork processing plant near Eagle Grove had tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus over the weekend.

The 16 positive test results came from a group of 62 employees who commute from Black Hawk County in eastern Iowa.

Due to the increased number of positive tests for the virus in Black Hawk County, Prestage notified the Wright County Board of Supervisors and Board of Health of the 62 commuting employees on Thursday. Prestage and the two boards agreed that the employees should be tested for the virus, even though none have shown any signs or symptoms of the illness.

Those 62 employees were tested on Friday and Saturday, and results were completed Sunday evening, confirming the 16 positive cases.

Although the 16 individuals are employed at the facility in Wright County, their cases will be attributed to the count for Black Hawk County as their county of residence, according to Karl Helgevold, a Wright County supervisor and public information officer.

Due to the results of the weekend’s tests and the fact that all of the positive cases were asymptomatic, on Sunday Wright County and Prestage requested assistance from the State Emergency Operations Center and Gov. Kim Reynolds to gain access to 950 tests in order to test all Prestage employees. Testing began on Monday morning.

In a letter obtained by The Messenger, Jere Null, chief operations officer for Prestage Foods, explained to employees in the different production areas how they would be tested over the following two days.

“Our employees are the highest priority to our company,” the letter said. “We believe it is important to test everyone in an abundance of caution. We do not have an apparent outbreak, and we want to keep it that way.”

Those tested on Monday will return to work on Wednesday if they receive negative results. Those tested today who receive negative results will return to work on Thursday.

Prestage employees who test positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus will not be eligible to return until after state guidelines on quarantine are met, though they will continue to be paid, Senior Vice President of Prestage Farms Inc., John Prestage said in a statement released on Monday.

Prestage Foods of Iowa employs approximately 850 individuals and has an additional 100 contractors working at the plant. Every employee will be tested this week, officials said.

“We believe it was important to take this voluntary action as soon as possible for the well-being of not only these specific team members, but all of our Prestage Foods employees and their families, as well as our community,” John Prestage said.

To facilitate testing on Monday, and continuing through most of the week, the plant is working under limited operations until all the test results are in.

Wright County Board of Health nurses were at the facility to conduct testing on Monday, Helgevold said.

“And also Iowa Specialty Hospital of Belmond and Clarion are assisting out there and they’re doing a wonderful job,” he added.

The county supervisor commended Prestage officials for coming to the county with its concerns about its employees from Black Hawk County last week.

“Prestage is a good neighbor,” Helgevold said. “They’re an important employer in the region and this just shows that they’re dedicated to their workers because they’re willing to do that. They didn’t have to come to us. That shows a lot of character of a company, because I don’t think all companies are that way.”

Until results begin to come in today and Wednesday, Wright County and Prestage officials don’t know what kind of impact the facility will face.

“We have to look at available workforce, because that is going to determine if we can run the plant under normal operations and capacity,” said Deborah Johnson, communications director for Prestage Farms. “We have not speculated what that would be at that point.”


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