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This aerial photo shows the Birds Eye vegetable processing facility in the town of Darien in 2018.

DARIEN

With about 20 employees testing positive for COVID-19, the Birds Eye food processing plant in Darien is suspending operations in the "vast majority of the facility until April 27," a company spokesman said late Saturday. 

That news came in a statement after The Gazette earlier Saturday night reported that six employees at the Darien plant tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus on Friday, according to an internal company email shared with The Gazette on Saturday afternoon.

Also on Saturday, a Walworth County health official confirmed the Geneva Lake Manor nursing home is the previously unnamed congregate care facility with a COVID-19 outbreak.

This all comes as the county reported a spike in laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19. The county’s latest figures shared Friday afternoon were 82 cases, five deaths and three patients currently hospitalized.

A Birds Eye employee on Saturday shared contents of an email sent by a human resources official late Friday night saying six employees and one contractor received positive test results.

The employee during an interview expressed concerns about safety at the facility. The employee requested anonymity as to avoid retribution for speaking out.

The human resources official who sent the email could not be immediately reached by phone or email Saturday.

Daniel Hare, the company spokesman, responded to a Gazette inquiry late Saturday night, saying in an emailed statement from the company that the areas of the facility that will remain open will have "appropriate physical distance between workers and plexiglass barriers." 

"The health and safety of our employees is our top priority," the statement reads. 

The statement continued, saying Conagra, the company that owns the Darien plant (Birds Eye is the brand name), will keep paying employees who are not working due to the suspension of operations. 

The company will also pay those who miss work due to COVID-19, those who have been exposed and those who are not feeling well, according to the statement. 

After confirming the outbreak at Geneva Lake Manor, Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director for Walworth County’s Department of Health & Human Services, acknowledged an outbreak at a second facility, where officials had asked the county to not name it.

“They are requesting that we allow them to lead the public notification process,” Nevicosi said in an email Saturday.

A similar situation happened in Rock County, where Oak Park Place suffered an outbreak and had requested the county to not name them. The county agreed to do so, but after repeated questions from The Gazette, Oak Park Place days later acknowledged its situation.

Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag later called the lack of transparency “a travesty,” saying the city could have helped sooner if officials had known about it before reading it in The Gazette.

It was not immediately known if the second facility Nevicosi mentioned was Birds Eye.

The Birds Eye email shared by the employee twice says in all capital letters, “DO NOT PRINT AND POST THIS MESSAGE.” It says it is important for employees to be informed and asks for the news to be shared verbally.

The employees who tested positive are self-quarantining and will not return to work until the quarantine period is over, the email states. “Several” workers also tested negative, according to the email.

“We want all employees to take care of their health,” the email states. “Please stay home and consider contacting a health provider if you should experience flu-like symptoms.”

The employee who spoke for an interview was concerned that workers—especially the seasonal workers at Birds Eye—were not in safe conditions, such as being closer than 6 feet from each other.

Also, those who have been around positive cases were not told to quarantine themselves and are still working, the employee said before news came of the company suspending operations.

“That’s the big concern for me,” the employee said.

The statement from the company says the Darien facility has been "proactive" in trying to prevent the disease's spread by using social distancing, using masks, screening temperatures and increasing sanitation.

The employee was worried the outbreak could spread across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, adding that several other workers called in sick Friday.

The employee wanted “the entire picture” to be shared more broadly, allowing others to make informed decisions about their own risks.

Additionally, the employee wanted oversight of the situation from a third party, such as state, federal or local health departments.

“We’re on the cusp of a major outbreak, a real problem, a hot spot,” the employee said. “And as of right now, they’re trying to control it internally.”

Regarding Geneva Lake Manor, Walworth County’s health department issued a public health order Friday laying down conditions for the facility at 211 Curtis St., Lake Geneva, as first reported Friday by the Lake Geneva Regional News.

Such conditions, according to the order, include:

  • Sharing with the health department a list of close contacts of confirmed cases.
  • Allowing staff to work only at this facility and only in specific zones. They cannot be shifted to other facilities owned or operated by Wisconsin Illinois Senior Housing Inc.
  • Restricting residents to specific zones. There will be no group activities or communal dining.
  • Requiring staff to use personal protective equipment, which at a minimum includes gloves, mask and a gown.
  • Prohibiting the transfer of patients unless it is medically necessary.
  • Notifying of the outbreak anyone admitted to, discharged from or transferred from the facility. Asymptomatic residents who are discharged must be told to self-quarantine for two weeks.
  • Allowing visitors only in critical situations, such as end-of-life circumstances. Then, visitors must wear a face covering and wash their hands upon going into and exiting the facility.

In order to be free from the order, the facility must show no additional staff or residents were confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days, and all staff and residents are released from isolation by the county’s health department.

The latter requirement means no fever for three days without the use of fever medication, respiratory symptom improvement and at least a week passing after symptoms begin. Management at the facility said in a statement to the Lake Geneva newspaper that it will comply with health guidelines.

Update: This story was updated at 10:17 p.m. Saturday with news from the company that owns the Birds Eye plant in Darien that says they had about 20 positive cases of COVID-19 and would be suspending most operations. 

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