(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.) A meatpacking plant in St. Joseph told employees they could return to work seven days after testing positive for COVID-19 if they were asymptomatic. State officials said the company was following federal guidelines.
Hours later, the state informed the company the guidance had changed.
Triumph Foods has been the site of a coronavirus outbreak where at least 373 employees have tested positive for the virus. Last week, the plant continued operations as thousands of employees filed in and out of the building to get tested at a mobile site in the company parking lot.
Employees who tested positive on Monday, April 27 but had no symptoms, were allowed to return to work Monday, according to a memo sent out in the internal company portal system.
“Per CDC guidelines, those who did not have COVID-19 symptoms but tested positive and are self-isolating can leave their “sick room” when at least 7 days have passed since the date of the first positive test and they continue to have no symptoms since the test. For 3 additional days, this group of people should continue to limit contact and wear a face covering for their nose and mouth when other people are present,” the message said.
Triumph cited the updated guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, following President Trump’s executive order requiring meatpacking plants to stay open.
The order meant to shore up the food supply chain after outbreaks slowed or stopped production at meat processing plants triggering fears of shortages.
Triumph Foods produces 1.5 billion pounds of pork annually, employs more than 2,800 people in St. Joseph, and makes $1.6 billion in revenue each year.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of Missouri Health and Senior Services, said he has been in contact with Triumph Foods and he believed the company had correctly interpreted CDC guidelines for workers with COVID-19.
But the State did not get the first batch of test results until two days after employees were tested, according to a DHSS press release. Employees were allowed to work until they developed symptoms or received a positive result days after tests.
In response to KQ2 questions about insufficient time in isolation, Williams said the seven day period began when the test was taken, not the result received.
“The point is from when the test was done, no when it comes back positive,” Williams said. “It’s when it’s positive for seven days if their test comes back and they haven’t had any symptoms during which their test is positive, it’s the date of the test that we interpret.”
Monday night, hours after the press briefing, Triumph employees had a new message from the company.
“Based on newly published CDC guidance, the state of Missouri has informed the Company that the return to work guidance has been changed from 7 days to 10 days.”
The CDC posted an explainer about the updates to its website on Sunday, saying the time frame was extended to align with new evidence about how long viral shedding occurs.
"This time period will capture a greater proportion of contagious patients; however, it will not capture everyone," the explainer said.
Employees tested on Monday, April 27 can return to work on Thursday, May 7, and those tested on Tuesday, April 28, can return to work on Friday, May 8, the message said.
Triumph Foods didn’t respond to requests for comment.