Confidential coronavirus outbreak data shows undisclosed incidents

Newly obtained confidential statewide data shows that coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces, schools and prisons are driving Illinois’ rising cases — and many of these outbreaks have never been made public, according to National Public Radio Illinois.

Illinois surpassed 300,000 confirmed cases this past weekend and recorded its highest daily death count since late June on Friday.

The internal data — prepared by the state health department and covering four different days between July and September — was obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting as part of an open-records request. It gives detailed information and case counts for nearly 2,600 separate outbreaks across Illinois.

The Illinois Department of Public Health, citing a state communicable diseases law, does not release details about where many outbreaks have occurred, limiting its disclosures to long-term care and assisted living facilities. Separately, the Illinois Department of Corrections and some counties regularly release numbers of infected inmates and prison staff.

Public health officials issued a “warning list” last week for 28 Illinois counties at risk for coronavirus surges and blamed, in part, businesses who were “blatantly disregarding mitigation measures, people not social distancing, gathering in large groups and not using face coverings.”

Many of the outbreaks at meatpacking plants have been far worse than what was publicly known.

In the cases of five plants that had been identified by name — Aurora Packing Co., in Kane; JBS in Beardstown; Smithfield locations in both Monmouth and St. Charles; and Rochelle Foods, which is owned by Hormel, in Ogle — the number of cases was at least double what has been reported.

The data shows outbreaks following multiple graduation, prom and birthday parties, weddings and trips. In late August, a “college party” involving “many sports teams at a local community college” in Springfield was responsible for 24 positive cases. At Quincy University, 28 students — all sports players — tested positive in late August, where it was “believed transmission happened in their living quarters,” according to the notes.

Despite mask mandates and social distancing measures being widely encouraged throughout the summer, dozens of outbreaks in July were directly tied to lax enforcement or gatherings that flouted public health guidelines.

Twelve cases were tied to a Quincy-based dance academy after it had a recital in neighboring Missouri “where it would be legal” and “mask enforcement did not happen.”

A 120-person golf event at the Elks Golf Club, with an open bar and numerous spectators, resulted in 14 cases. One of the players was symptomatic. The club did not return a message left on its office phone.

Meatpacking plants

In April, the Warren County Health Department disclosed that three of Smithfield’s 1,700 employees at its Monmouth plant tested positive. No other figure was publicly disclosed, but the state data shows the plant has had 188 confirmed COVID-19 cases and seven probable cases.

That makes it the second-worst meatpacking plant outbreak in the state, behind Tyson’s plant in Joslin at 202 cases. The extent of the Tyson outbreak has already been reported.

The virus’s peak at the Smithfield plant was from May to mid-June, according to Warren County health director Jenna Link. The plant struggled to obtain masks in March and April, but conditions at the plant improved once the company secured masks and began to separate workers on the production line.

Smithfield has struggled with large outbreaks at several of its plants in Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin. Last month, OSHA cited the company for “failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm” at its Sioux Falls, S. D., plant, where at least 1,294 employees tested positive for the coronavirus and four died. The company took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times defending its practices and accusing critics of “perpetuating a false narrative.”

In a statement to the Midwest Center, Smithfield said less than 1% of all of its employees had contracted COVID-19, thanks to its safety measures.

“For our part, we have incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling over $500 million to date to protect our employees and keep America fed,” the statement read.” We have done everything we can, as fast as we can.”

In Rochelle, the Ogle County Health Department ordered the Hormel plant to close in mid-April because it wasn’t following the department’s plan to contain the outbreak, according to TV station WREX. About 30 cases were identified publicly.

But after the plant tested all its workers in May, the numbers increased rapidly and about 120 workers tested positive, according to a company statement.

Since then, the company has installed barriers, required masks and is randomly testing employees daily, according to the statement. As of Sept. 30, 137 Rochelle workers have tested positive.

“We have been proactive in communicating often to (our workforce) ensuring that they know that it is okay, and encouraged, to stay at home when feeling unwell,” a Rochelle spokesperson said.

In Beardstown, the JBS plant has had a total of 125 cases as of Sept. 30. The plant only had two active cases as of Tuesday, spokesman Cameron Bruett said.

“Our random, routine surveillance testing of asymptomatic team members ensures our preventive measures remain effective as the pandemic continues,” he said in a statement.

Also included in the records are meatpacking facilities that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted in two weekly summaries but were not identified publicly.

These are mostly smaller plants with dozens of COVID-19 cases, such as Pork King Packing in McHenry (45 cases), Stampede Meat in Chicago (38 cases) and OSI Ashland, also in Chicago (21 cases). The companies did not return requests for comment.