KELO Radio newsman Todd Epp asked the South Dakota Department of Health six important and straightforward questions about what the state knew about cases of coronavirus at the Smithfield Foods Sioux Falls slaughterhouse, when the state knew it, and what the state did about it. The state answered only two of them. [Passages in brackets are my commentary.]
1. When did the SDDOH know of the first case at Smithfield?
2. When was the patient notified about their infection?
Clinicians provide the initial notification to patients of their COVID-19 diagnosis. [A reasonable non-answer: the state may not have the information and might not normally be expected to have it.]
3. When was Smithfield notified about the positive test?
4. When was the City of Sioux Falls notified about the positive test?
SD-DOH has the responsibility for investigating reportable diseases, such as COVID-19, and the City of Sioux Falls does not receive notification of every positive case in a business. However, the Department of Health has been in daily communication with the City of Sioux Falls since the community began experiencing substantial community spread. In addition, the Department has a representative in the City of Sioux Fall’s emergency operations center. [Not an answer: “in daily communication” does not mean the state informed the city of the exact location of the hazard.]
5. Did Smithfield ask the SDDOH for advice on how to prevent additional infections? If so, when was that date?
SD-DOH has worked closely with Smithfield since the time of their first positive case. [Not an answer: “worked closely” doesn’t tell us what the work consisted of or whether it consisted of the company’s asking for advice.]
6. When did the SDDOH realize that they had a potential hotspot on their hands with Smithfield?
SD-DOH investigates all cases and informs employers, close contacts, and the public if there is a potential for spread of COVID-19. [Not an answer: “investigates” and “informs” has nothing to do with when or whether the Department recognized an imminent threat to public health.]
[citation: Todd Epp, “What the State of S.D. Knew and When It Knew It About COVID-19 at Smithfield,” KELO Radio, 2020.04.16.]
The two straight answers the Department of Health gives are significant. On March 24, the state was aware of one case of coronavirus in a particularly crowded, risky work environment run by a company with a record of dismissing health concerns as exaggerated. On April 9, sixteen days later, after 80 workers caught covid-19, the state had not publicly urged any action, mostly leaving Sioux Falls mayor Paul TenHaken to lead that argument. On April 10, seventeen days after it learned of the first case at Smithfield, the state knew of 190 cases at Smithfield, and Governor Kristi Noem was blaming the media for not getting the whole story (the way she was, talking to Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan and not to any workers in Sioux Falls). On April 11, the Governor recommended that Smithfield close down for a couple weeks… but only after Mayor TenHaken first drafted a letter making that call and asked Noem to sign on with him.
And to this day, the Governor has not only resisted but rebutted the merits of a statewide stay-at-home order, not to mention an order shutting down a specific industrial site where she knew coronavirus was spreading back in March. Her public statements seem more focused on chatting with USDA chief Sonny Perdue about finding ways to reopen the meatpacking plant than on locking down the city to prevent further spread of coronavirus.
Today, April 16, with 733 cases linked to Smithfield Sioux Falls, Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan declaims, “For the security of our nation, I cannot understate how critical it is for our industry to continue to operate unabated.”
The explosion of coronavirus in Sioux Falls, facilitated by we cannot let Big Meat operate unabated; we must abate Smithfield’s and other meatpackers practices with some sensible health precautions, to protect their workers and the public at large. The state should have abated Smithfield’s operations by the end of March. Instead, the state remained silent and inert for two and a half weeks.
If the Smithfield outbreak had been held to 100, the number of coronavirus cases in South Dakota would be half of its current number (1,311 statewide, 1,065 in Minnehaha County).
We can’t wait until the numbers reach the top 20 or top 10 or top 5 to take action against a contagious and deadly disease. But the South Dakota Department of Health waited, failing putting the interests of a corporate behemoth in a favored industry above science and public safety.