Rochelle Foods employees begin Covid-19 testing

Tents set up in the parking lot of Rochelle Foods for testing of employees. (Jennifer Simmons photo)

Officials hoping to reopen plant on May 4

ROCHELLE — Testing of Rochelle Foods employees began on site at the plant on Thursday morning. 

"There were 608 individuals tested today and we anticipate testing will be completed tomorrow. As a result of this testing, we do anticipate an increase in positive cases in Ogle County and surrounding counties," Ogle County Health Department Administrator Kyle Auman said. “This drive through testing event was planned and implemented in less than 48 hours. The success of this event was possible with the help from partnerships with Tom Richter, Ogle County Emergency Manager; Brian VanVickle, Ogle County Sheriff; Rochelle Fire Department; professionals at the Emergency Operations Center; Rochelle Community Hospital; KSB Hospital and Rochelle Foods."

The hospitals and health department joined forces to provide the COVID-19 testing of employees after the food processing operation was ordered to cease production by the health department late last week.

Tents were set up in the parking lot at Rochelle Foods on Wednesday to accommodate for employee testing Thursday and Friday.

“Rochelle Community Hospital is proud to partner with Ogle County Public Health and our partners at KSB Hospital to help investigate a substantial COVID-19 outbreak," Jim Carle, Rochelle Community Hospital’s Chief Ancillary Officer said. "The cooperation among all involved has been nothing short of excellent. All of the planning and preparation has paid great dividends.”

On Friday, April 17, the health department notified Rochelle Foods and parent company Hormel Foods that the company had 48 hours to close the plant due to the number of positive COVID-19 cases associated with employees at the facility.

As of April 17, 24 total cases — 19 of the 41 positive cases in Ogle County, three in Whiteside County and two in Winnebago County at that time — were attributed to Rochelle Foods employees.

According to Ogle County Health Department officials several attempts to assist in the control of the outbreak were made, including: Recommendations for additional testing, additional steps for employee monitoring, recommendations for additional sanitation processes, isolation of positive cases, and quarantine of close contacts and household contacts, but to no avail, and the mandatory closure order was issued.

The plant did comply with the closure within the ordered 48 hours.

"We continue to take every step we can to ensure the health and safety of our team members and our communities. Over the next two days, we are collaborating with the county and local hospitals working to test our team members as we work toward reopening our facility on May 4,” Rochelle Foods plant manager Bill Rice said in a released statement.

Employee testing is mandatory in order to return to work on the projected May 4 re-opening date.

"It was important for us to quickly test all Rochelle Food employees for COVID-19 to allow the company to identify their workforce that is safe to return back to work in an expeditious manner. In addition, this effort will also help our surrounding counties in controlling further spread of this COVID-19 infection outbreak," Dr. Pratip Nag of KSB Hospital said.

"Food production is in the definition of essential business. Protecting the workforce and getting this plant up and running as soon as possible were our top priorities. KSB's prior experience in drive thru testing helped address potential process errors involved in mass testing," Aaqil Khan of KSB Hospital said. "This scale hasn't been seen before and operationalizing in less than 48 hours made planning a challenge.Our teams started registering patients at 2 a.m. and our lab team was putting in orders at 4 a.m. Onsite we split the process across two tents. The teams at the first tent quickly identified patients, provided lab documents and educated the individuals on safety precautions after they were tested. The second tent had multiple 2-person collection teams allowing us to safely collect and handle the specimen. With three car lanes of testing, we were able to respond to varying volumes of traffic and test over 600 individuals in less than eight hours. We laid out a framework for mass testing and the partnership between the key players made it happen."

Each employee tested was given clear instructions on quarantine, staying home and sanitization procedures. Tested employees were also instructed to continue to monitor symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and loss of taste or smell. 

Rochelle Foods confirmed that employees will continue to be employed, paid and receive health benefits throughout the closure of the plant. 

As of Thursday afternoon, the Ogle County Health Department was reporting 75 positive cases of COVID-19 in the county. 

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