On April 22, St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray emailed City Attorney Brian Carter, telling him to shut down the Triumph Foods plant because of a coronavirus outbreak. But the plant never closed, three people died and hundreds tested positive for the virus.
An investigative report by USA Today shows local officials only offered advice to limit the damage at Triumph, instead directing the problem towards state and federal agencies. News-Press NOW reached out to local and state officials late this week in wake of the USA Today report.
“That email from the mayor also indicated that there were only nine cases at that time, and that is why we didn’t move forward at that time, because nine out of 2,800 (employees) isn’t significant,” Debra Bradley, the St. Joseph Health Department director, said Friday. “It’s not that it’s not significant, it’s just not that many people.”
McMurray, who apparently sounded the alarm April 22, declined to comment for this story. Five days after his email, each employee at Triumph Foods was tested for COVID-19, and more than 400 cases were found, many of whom were asymptomatic patients.
Instead of sending employees home immediately after their test, they were allowed to return to work while the results were pending. Bradley agreed with Triumph’s approach of letting employees come back to work.
“Why do that?” Bradley asked. “They were asymptomatic.”
Marty Novak and Gary Roach, two city council members, declined to comment on the USA Today story and its findings. PJ Kovac, the councilman who represents the South Side where the plant is located, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The remaining council members, Kent O’Dell, Madison Davis, Brian Myers, Russell Moore and Brenda Blessing didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Bradley told News-Press NOW the same thing Friday that she told USA Today, that her department didn’t have the authority to close the plant because of state law, and that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services would have to be the one to make the call.
She said she didn’t recall if she urged Dr. Randall Williams, the state’s health director, to close the plant.
“Urge? I don’t know, I know we had several conversations about it,” Bradley said. “The president was sending guidance out at the same time that we were not to close them down.”
However, an email obtained by USA Today shows Bradley did follow up with Williams about draft guidance created by the state that would’ve allowed her to close the plant herself.
“(Williams) said about three weeks ago DHSS drafted a policy that delegates the local health authority to have the authority to close a business during a pandemic,” Bradley wrote in the April email. “I asked him to send me that documentation.”
It’s unclear if that documentation was ever sent, and a question on the matter sent to the St. Joseph Health Department wasn’t answered. It’s also unclear that if the power had been delegated to Bradley if she would have used it.
It’s true that President Donald Trump had issued guidance to help keep meatpacking plants open, but not until April 28, six days after the mayor’s email about closing the plant. The president’s order also didn’t require the plant to keep operating.
“I had conversations with Triumph, my staff had conversations with Triumph, about steps they can take to remain open and try to protect their employees at the same time,” Bradley said.
According to several interviews conducted by USA Today, the plant may not have followed the St. Joseph Health Department’s advice. Nine current or former employees told the newspaper that Triumph “never” implemented social distancing at the plant.
Chris Clark, a spokesperson for Triumph Foods, said on Thursday the USA Today article “contained misleading, inaccurate and incomplete information.” Clark did not respond to a question from News-Press NOW about which information in the article he was referring to.
In a statement Thursday, Clark said Triumph obtained masks for employees before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended them. He added that the company increased custodial staffing, trained employees about COVID-19, placed barriers throughout the plant, created “space distancing” and made donations to local food banks.
Williams, the man who has the ability to close the plant by statute, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. Bradley told News-Press NOW she wouldn’t classify the incident at Triumph as a “superspreader event,” though she said the plant continues to have cases like many of St. Joseph’s largest employers.
According to USA Today’s report, at least 622 cases of COVID-19 had been linked to Triumph Foods as of August.