virus Rantoul plant tests

OSF HealthCare staff members in protective gear are shown inside the Rantoul Foods facility on Friday, May 8, 2020, to begin testing employees at the plant for the coronavirus.

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RANTOUL — As mass COVID-19 testing got underway at Rantoul Foods, a local official was expecting to see the number of positive cases rise.

“The more you test, the more likely it is that you’re going to have positive results,” said Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the plant had grown to 52 cases Friday with the addition of three more, according to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. About 450 of the 650 employees at the Rantoul hog-processing plant remained to be tested Friday as SafeWorks Illinois and OSF HealthCare nurses arrived to begin testing for all employees on the plant grounds.

By the end of the day Friday, they’d tested 201 of those 450 employees, 11 of whom were positive, with plans to continue testing all day today, according to SafeWorks.

About 25 percent (49) of the 200 plant employees who had already been tested prior to Friday were found to have positive cases of COVID-19.

If that percentage proves to be about the same for the 450 being tested this weekend, more than 100 additional employees could be infected, though Eisenhauer said, “we’re hoping that’s not the case.”

Dr. Jared Rogers, president of OSF Heart of Mary and OSF Sacred Heart medical centers, said the testing was being conducted on the plant site in a structure with garage doors open at either end, so Rantoul Foods employees could drive through and be tested in their cars.

Test results were expected to be available fairly quickly, possibly within 24 hours, he said.

Rogers said SafeWorks Illinois owner Dr. David Fletcher got OSF involved in the testing at the plant.

“He saw a need to be filled, and a need to be filled quickly,” Rogers said.

Fletcher, who has also been Rantoul Foods’ medical director for eight years, said plans to test the hundreds of Rantoul Foods workers came together in 48 hours.

The plant has done a “fantastic job” in delaying and containing a COVID-19 outbreak and was one of the last meat plants in the U.S. to have a positive case, Fletcher said.

“They didn’t have a positive till April 25,” he said.

Rantoul Foods was already taking safety steps months ago, Fletcher said. That included screening all employees for symptoms and requiring those who had symptoms to stay home until they were symptom-free for three days.

“They’ve done everything they can do with physical distancing, shift changes, following all the guidelines,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said testing won’t end at the plant this weekend. He also has plans to work with OSF HealthCare and the University of Illinois to do antibody testing.

“This isn’t going to be one and done,” he said.

As the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District continues to do contact tracing of infected employees, Eisenhauer said a clearer picture should emerge about the extent and impact of the plant outbreak in the community.

“Through that contact tracing, we’ll be able to identify whether the picture is much greater than what we’re seeing at the plant, or whether the employees have been isolated,” he said.

One challenge the village has been facing is getting information to plant employees who have been infected to let them know assistance is available for them and their families, Eisenhauer said.

Patient privacy laws prohibit sharing information about the infected workers, he said.

“We respect that, but it doesn’t allow us to get too far out in front of it, but rather respond to it,” Eisenhauer said.

So village officials have provided information with the plant to be shared with employees, he said.

“The other thing we’re doing is encouraging the whole community to continue to practice those infection control policies, to make sure they don’t come into contact with a confirmed case and they, themselves, get infected and spread it,” he said.