The National Guard on Thursday and Friday will help with COVID-19 testing at the Birds Eye food processing plant in Darien, a Walworth County health official said this week.
Although Birds Eye spokesman Daniel Hare said last week that plant officials had planned to open Sunday, he said in an email Monday that, “We are finalizing plans and intend to resume operations later this week.”
Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director for the county’s health department, said the emergency operations center asked for assistance from the National Guard in setting up on-site testing at the Darien facility.
He said the National Guard will test employees, family members and household members.
“Birdseye has worked closely with our Public Health Department, and we agree that this is the best way to get them safely reopened,” he said in an email Monday.
Capt. Joe Trovato, spokesman for the Wisconsin National Guard, said a team of 20 to 30 soldiers expects to collect 1,400 swab samples Thursday and Friday. The Guard has had 11 such teams collecting samples at sites throughout Wisconsin in support of health departments, he said.
Individuals tested can call a hotline to get their test results, Trovato said.
Overall, Nevicosi said earlier Monday, the three facilities in Walworth County publicly known to have COVID-19 outbreaks have been working well with the county’s health department to address those outbreaks.
Other than the three outbreaks that have been reported—Geneva Lake Manor in Lake Geneva, its sister facility Holton Manor in Elkhorn and Birds Eye—he said the county is aware of no other outbreaks as the county used to define them.
Nevicosi said the word “outbreak” might be slightly misleading to the public because the county received a new definition: one or more positive cases in a congregate living or high-consequence setting or two or more cases in other settings, including businesses.
Previously, the county had been identifying them as three or more cases involving residents or staff from the same unit with illness onsets within 72 hours of one another.
Nevicosi said Walworth County has not had to issue any other public health orders since the one it gave to Geneva Lake Manor on April 17.
The company that oversees Geneva Lake Manor and Holton Manor took issue with the order, saying in a statement shared April 20 that its facilities were already taking the “exhaustive steps” ordered by the county.
But Nevicosi said Monday the county disagreed, adding that county officials took the big step to issue the order because “there was a threshold that was crossed where we were worried about the community’s safety with the practices that they had in place.”
He said he understood why the company would be upset. But perhaps, he said, there was a disconnect between what has happening day-to-day in Lake Geneva and what the corporate offices knew.
“Maybe that was a part of it,” he said. “On the ground, we didn’t see it the same way.”
Nevicosi said the congregate-care facilities in Elkhorn and Lake Geneva have since been good partners with the county and now are taking proper care of their staffs and residents.
He has said the outbreak at Holton Manor was “far more controlled” than the ones at Geneva Lake Manor and Birds Eye.
Meanwhile, the county on Tuesday reported an increase in COVID-19 cases to 235, which reflects data as of Monday, up from 180 reported Friday.
The county reported six patients were hospitalized with the disease, but Nevicosi said it can take time for the county to learn of discharges from the hospital.
The county reported no changes to the eight deaths it has already accounted for, while 59 patients have recovered from the disease.
Nevicosi on Monday declined to say if any of the deaths have occurred at the facilities with outbreaks, saying with such a small number of deaths so far it would be easy to identify them.
There are also 162 people isolating in their homes.
During an interview Monday morning, Nevicosi said the county’s hospitals have not reached any capacity crisis.
The county health department has become much busier with contact tracing, however. He said the facilities in Elkhorn and Lake Geneva are much smaller than Birds Eye, which employs about 800 workers.
After news of the outbreak in Darien, he said more and more tests came in. With that came more contact tracing.
Contact tracing is how the county identifies facilities with outbreaks because investigators ask about employment, Nevicosi said.
They might not know about a facility’s outbreak if workers live outside the county, which is what originally happened in the Birds Eye outbreak. A lot of testing was done in Illinois and not immediately reported to Walworth County, he said.
Nevicosi called Birds Eye a “pretty important piece of the food supply chain.”
Although he previously said the county first learned of this outbreak from The Gazette, on Monday he praised the close relationship Birds Eye officials developed with the county’s health department.
“I’m encouraged by how willing they have been to work with us,” he said.
Hare, the company spokesman, said Birds Eye had about 100 employees diagnosed with COVID-19 as of April 27, which was the most current number he had available.