This story starts with 12 years in a Thai refugee camp and ends with an anguished phone call from an Aurora hospital.
In between, it stops at the JBS USA Greeley beef plant, the site of the state’s second-largest confirmed novel coronavirus outbreak. It pauses on the lines where the nation’s beef is slaughtered and sliced and packaged, where Tin Aye spent years on the job before falling ill this spring from COVID-19.
Aye moved to the United States to work, to get her family out of the refugee camp, away from the bamboo huts.
“My mom was working until she died,” said Aye’s daughter, San Twin.
An early hit
The coronavirus spread among JBS employees in March — just as confirmed cases in Colorado were climbing out of the hundreds and into the thousands. By the end of the month, nearly 200 employees and dependents had been checked out for confirmed or suspected COVID-19. The outbreak peaked on March 27.
Yet Weld County health officials and JBS leaders emailed only occasionally in March, and the virus was already entrenched by the time a serious, on-paper effort to protect workers ramped up in April with a flurry of emails, public health orders and a plant closure followed by new safety protocols, according to a Denver Post review of more than 500 pages of emails, letters, memos and other records obtained through the state’s open records law and from the plant’s union.
“Want you to know my colleagues are not reassured by what I’m sharing about measures being implemented,” Mark Wallace, then-director of the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, wrote to JBS’s head of human resources in an April 7 email. “‘The cat’s out of the bag,’ is what all the health care providers are saying — too many sick people already, too much spread already.”
Nationwide, more than 16,200 workers in meat and poultry processing plants in 23 states contracted the novel coronavirus by the end of May, and 86 died, according to a Tuesday report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Colorado, state health officials have confirmed outbreaks at seven meat processing plants, with 447 infected workers and 10 deaths. Nearly two-thirds of Colorado cases are among JBS Greeley plant employees.
To date, 286 JBS plant employees have tested positive for COVID-19; six plant workers died along with a seventh person who worked at the company’s corporate offices in Greeley.
“JBS’s response to COVID was late and inadequate,” Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 said. “That’s why there was such a detrimental impact on workers.”
Aye was one of those workers. She fled her home country of Burma in the 1990s after advocating for women’s rights and facing threats to her life. She ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she married and started a family.
In the camp, the family lived in a wooden hut with a roof made of leaves, surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers, unable to leave the complex. Twin grew up there and remembers rebuilding their hut several times after strong storms destroyed the structure. Each year, she accepted two school books, two pens and two pencils from the United Nations.
The family immigrated to the United States as refugees in 2007, and Aye started working at JBS. She always dreamed of returning to her old village to start a temple and an orphanage, Twin said. For years, Aye saved up money for the “big donation.”
“We started to work very hard for our kids,” Aye’s husband, Aung Kyaw Toe said. “We tried very hard for our dream.”
Kevin Mohatt, Special to the Denver Post
A photo of Tin Aye, who died of complications from COVID-19, is placed on at a table in her memory as Monk U Ni Ma La leads family members in prayer during Aye's funeral in Denver on May 21, 2020.
Courtesy of San Twin
San Twin holds a picture of her mother, Tin Aye, and a book that her mother used to study English.Tin Aye, a JBS employee, died in May after contracting the novel coronavirus.
Courtesy of San Twin
The hut that Tin Aye and her family lived in during their 12-year stay in a refugee camp in Thailand. Tin Aye, a JBS employee, died in May after contracting the novel coronavirus.
Courtesy of San Twin
Tin Aye holds her daughter, San Twin, around 1994, before the family immigrated to the United States. Tin Aye, a JBS employee, died in May after contracting the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy of San Twin)
Kevin Mohatt, Special to the Denver Post
Tin Aye, 59, rinses rice before cooking it in her home in Aurora on March 7, 2020.
Kevin Mohatt, Special to the Denver Post
Husband and wife, Aung Kyaw Toe, 51, and Tin Aye, 59, drive to Sam’s Club to stock up on food in Aurora on March 7, 2020.
Kevin Mohatt, Special to the Denver Post
Workers at Fairmount Cemetery load the casket of Tin Aye, who died of complications from COVID-19, into a hearse where her remains will be transported for cremation in Denver on May 21, 2020.
Kevin Mohatt, Special to the Denver Post
Zar Ni Lin, the niece of Tin Aye, who died of complications from COVID-19, is comforted by a family member as she prays at her aunt's casket during funeral services in Denver on May 21, 2020.
Coronavirus spread quickly
On March 17, a few days after the first positive COVID-19 case was confirmed in Weld County, a JBS employee emailed the county health department to ask whether the company’s corporate cafe could stay open, and health officials advised it could, with some precautions.
That was one of just a handful of emails JBS and county health officials exchanged about COVID-19 during the entire month of March, according to records obtained under the state’s open record law.
But despite the lack of written communication between the company and county health officials, JBS was nevertheless working diligently to respond to the pandemic, JBS head of corporate affairs Cameron Bruett said in a statement Wednesday.
“We have followed and often exceeded the CDC and OSHA-issued guidance, and reacted quickly to identify ways to enhance plant safety, many times with no official guidance,” he said in the statement.
Still, employees got sick, and quickly.
The first employees reported symptoms in late February, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but those cases appear to be outliers; most other employees reported experiencing symptoms after March 11.
JBS employee Saul Sanchez came home sick on March 19 and was hospitalized on March 24. A day after that, JBS employee Daniel Avila Loma was sent home from work with COVID-19 symptoms; he was hospitalized on March 28. Around that same time, in mid-to-late March, Aye started coughing and became feverish. One night, she stopped working and went to the on-site JBS medical clinic to be checked out, Twin said.
“She told me she went to the clinic at work, and they said she just had a normal cold, and so they sent her back to work,” Twin said.
But Aye kept getting worse, Twin said. She called off sick for a day or two, then went back to work. Then, on March 28, Twin, who was pregnant, started having contractions and went to the hospital. There, the doctors became alarmed — neither Twin nor the baby were taking in enough oxygen; an immediate C-section was needed.
The doctors tested Twin for COVID-19 and it came back positive. She knew right away she must have gotten the virus from her mother, the only person she’d visited with since the pandemic began. Twin called her mom and told her to get to a hospital. Aye was admitted to intensive care on March 29.
Meanwhile, hundreds of workers at JBS were calling off and refusing to go to work even as a Facebook page for the JBS plant was urging workers to keep showing up, saying in a post on March 25 that the statewide stay-at-home order “DOES NOT apply to us.” The company also promised to hand out free five-pound rolls of beef to employees at the end of their shifts, according to the posts. About 3,200 people work at the plant. That Facebook page has since been deleted or made private; Bruett did not answer questions about it.
“Unfortunately, Colorado and Weld County were impacted early by COVID-19, and the virus spread very quickly throughout our region,” Bruett said in the statement. “We have coordinated with local and state health departments throughout the outbreak and we will continue to do so.”
But the families of some JBS employees who got sick in March said JBS did little to nothing to promote social distancing or safety precautions at that time.
“On March 23, my dad was telling my mom that there were lots of people beginning to miss work,” said Olivier Avila, Loma’s son. “But she didn’t get the impression that there was any PPE or social distancing in place.”
Normally, his father would share that kind of information with his mother, Avila said, because she previously worked at JBS and was interested in the day-to-day goings on.
“At that time, no one had to wear a mask,” Twin said. “JBS did not take COVID-19 seriously. They didn’t ask employees to work at a distance. They don’t check if employees have a fever or not. They don’t even care. They just want employees to go to work no matter what. And if they don’t like to work, then they can quit.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 filed a grievance March 27 alleging that JBS failed to provide appropriate protective gear to employees and asked the company to provide hand sanitizer, gloves and masks to all workers.
Bruett said in the statement that JBS made the decision to have all employees wear masks on March 19, several days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged the use of face coverings. He did not answer a question about when JBS actually started providing masks to its Greeley plant workers.
“Securing the supplies for our more than 60 facilities and more than 62,000 team members took time given the global demand for masks, but we acted as quickly as possible to ensure our workforce had appropriate PPE and masks,” he said.
Bruett on Wednesday also did not answer several questions about when JBS implemented various other precautions at its Greeley plant, but he previously told the Denver Post, on March 31, that the company had “for weeks” been doing extra disinfection and sanitation in the plant. JBS began to stagger shifts and breaks to encourage social distancing in the plant on March 30, he said then, and the company hoped to be able to temperature test all employees as they arrived for their shifts by April 3.
State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said Wednesday that JBS’s response to the pandemic improved over time.
“It’s certainly been an evolution in the response,” she said. “In the beginning there were limited public health control measures in place, but JBS since that time has been very responsive to implement public health recommendations.”
The Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment opened an investigation into JBS on March 26; the state health agency was alerted April 2 and confirmed an outbreak at the plant on April 3. Herlihy said there is a “significant delay” from when a person begins experiencing symptoms to when that person seeks care, is tested, receives the results and the results are reported to public health agencies.
“There was certainly widespread community transmission occurring in Weld County,” Herlihy said. “And it did take time to identify that one particular location where transmission was occurring was JBS.”
On April 1, Wallace emailed JBS and asked to set up a time to discuss health providers’ concerns about the “high number of JBS employees” seeking care for coronavirus symptoms.
“Their concern, and mine, is far too many employees must be working when sick and spreading the infection to others,” he wrote, adding he appreciated “the prevention efforts JBS has implemented thus far.”
Death, politics and a closure
On April 4, the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment sent JBS a letter in which Wallace raised the alarm about the coronavirus’ spread at the plant, warning that the company’s “work while sick” culture was exacerbating the spread — nine of 14 coronavirus patients at the time had gone to work while sick. Wallace ordered JBS to screen employees for sickness, put social distancing in place and take other steps to slow the spread.
Then JBS employees began to die.
Sanchez, 78, died April 7. Two other employees, Tibursio Rivera Lopez, 69, and Eduardo Conchas de la Cruz, 60, died April 9 and April 10.
Wallace and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered the plant to shut down on April 10, saying that continued spread among employees could overwhelm local healthcare facilities if not stopped.
“It is our understanding from the telephone conversation that the Governor did not want this letter sent,” JBS’s director of human resources, Chris Gaddis wrote in response to the shutdown order. “Please confirm it was properly sent.”
A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday said Polis did not ask, instruct or encourage health officials to keep the plant open.
“Of course the Governor wanted the health order sent,” spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email. “The Governor has been clear that JBS needs to be more transparent with their staff and the public about the situation at their plant.”
Subscribe to bi-weekly newsletter to get health news sent straight to your inbox.
The politics surrounding the outbreak at JBS — and similar outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country — ballooned in April. President Donald Trump discussed the Greeley plant on April 10, telling reporters that the outbreak was a “spike” with “many (sick) people, very quickly.” Later that month, he signed an executive order aimed at ensuring meat processing plants stayed open.
The day after Trump’s Greeley comments, on April 11, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the state’s health agency, wrote in an email to Wallace that she’d received a call from the director of the CDC about the Greeley plant.
“JBS was in touch with the VP who had Director Redfield call me,” she wrote in the email, referring to Vice President Mike Pence and CDC Director Robert Redfield. “They want us to use the CDC’s critical infrastructure guidance, (sending asymptomatic people back to work even if we suspect exposure but they have no symptoms) even with the outbreak at present level. Are you okay with that? I am if you are.”
Wallace approved in a response. Hunsaker Ryan and Wallace, who retired as the county health director at the end of May, did not return requests for comment on this story.
Ian Dickson, spokesman for the CDPHE, said in a statement that Hunsaker Ryan had a lengthy discussion with Redfield about his request and “decided to comply, anticipating that the state would need the CDC’s continued partnership to mitigate the outbreak at JBS.”
“In the end, we did not amend the order to match the CDC guidance and JBS ultimately closed the facility,” the statement said.
The plant closed temporarily on April 15.
On April 13, JBS wrote in a letter to the union that it was developing a COVID-19 training program for employees that covered social distancing, face masks, hand washing, symptoms and the need to stay home if sick. All employees would be trained in the practices by the end of the month, the letter said.
JBS also listed steps it had taken to increase safety in the plant, including adding plexiglass dividers between lunch tables, providing masks to workers, increasing signage about best practices in the plant and adding new hand sanitizing stations.
CDC inspections at the plant on April 14 and April 16 confirmed those measures — though the CDC team found some plant workers were using balaclavas as face coverings and said that practice should stop as balaclavas were not effective masks, according to an April 20 memo summarizing the visits.
The CDC also recommended JBS take a variety of additional measures, including reducing how many cattle the plant processed each day and modifying sick leave policies to discourage sick workers from coming to work, and avoiding incentives — like a free roll of beef — that were tied to attendance.
By April 19, 183 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed among JBS employees, and another 25 cases confirmed among those employees’ households. There were 50 people hospitalized.
The Greeley plant reopened April 24, nine days after it shut down.
JBS employee Way Ler, 61, died from coronavirus on April 26.
Loma, 65, died April 29.
An anguished call
About a week after Aye was admitted to the hospital, the doctors called Twin and said her mother likely wouldn’t survive.
The medical team was about to take Aye in for a last-ditch procedure, and she took the phone to talk to her daughter for the last time.
“My mom said, ‘The doctors will try to save me, but don’t worry for me, worry for yourself, because you have a newborn and a C-section,’” Twin said. “‘The doctor already explained to me that I am not going to make it anymore. But I feel really bad that I couldn’t see my grandson, I really want to see him.’ And she cried, and hung up. She didn’t have time. They were rushing the surgery for her because she couldn’t breathe anymore.”
Aye went on a ventilator, and then died May 17. She never met her first grandchild, and Twin is navigating life as a new mother without her own mother.
She and her father hope to one day carry out her mother’s dream of traveling back to Burma, which now is recognized as Myanmar, and opening up a temple and orphanage in Aye’s village.
“Our dream is broken right now,” Toe said in June.
Two weeks later, on a hot Sunday afternoon, he stood over his 3-month-old grandson’s stroller with about 100 other people in a parking lot outside the union’s Greeley offices.
A poster-sized laminated picture of Aye was taped to the top of the stroller.
The group had gathered to memorialize the six JBS plant workers who died from coronavirus. One by one, their family members took the microphone and remembered their loved ones.
“I was there the day we had to shut off the ventilator for my father,” said Patricia Rangel, Sanchez’s daughter. She spent Father’s Day at the cemetery.
Avila took the microphone too, and told the crowd about his father, Loma, an avid baseball player and coach who’d take vacation every year to return to and volunteer in the Mexican town he’d immigrated from.
“It took one month for COVID to take my dad,” Avila said. “He worked for JBS for over 30 years.”
Twin spoke about Aye’s work ethic, about how she always cooked and cared for the family.
“I want to say thank you to my mom for working so hard,” she told the crowd.
The outbreak at JBS has slowed. It’s still classified as active by the state, but the plant saw only one new case in June, Bruett said. On July 3, the state confirmed a small outbreak among JBS’s corporate summer interns, with five infected.
During a surprise inspection on June 22, state and county health officials found that JBS was following most of the recommended practices for protecting workers, Herlihy said.
A Thursday memo summarizing the June 22 inspection noted that nearly all employees in the plant were wearing masks during the visit, and that many also wore face shields. Inspectors found that JBS had installed a new UV light sanitizing system and observed several new managers roaming the plant who had been promoted solely to enforce coronavirus safety precautions.
“The greatest continued issue we identified was individuals clustering outside the facility while awaiting screening to go inside for the day,” Herlihy said.
Cordova still has concerns about workers’ safety, particularly that social distancing guidelines aren’t being followed. Workers may be at risk again if the state is hit with a second wave of infections, she said.
“We’re not done,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Investigative journalism is time-consuming and difficult to produce. Please support The Denver Post.
Become a subscriber for only 99 cents for the first month.
- Email from JBS employee to Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, March 17, 2020
- Public health order letter from Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment to JBS, April 4, 2020
- Email from Chris Gaddis to Jill Hunsaker Ryan, April 10, 2020
- Closure letter from Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, April 10, 2020
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Memorandum, April 20, 2020
- CDC Update: COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities ― United States, April–May 202, July 7, 2020
- Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment memo to JBS, July 9, 2020
- Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment chart showing onset dates of COVID-19 symptoms among JBS employees, undated
- Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment COVID-19 Outbreak Data, continuously updated
Sourcing & Methodology
This story was reported from more than 500 emails, letters, memorandums, reports and records obtained under the state’s open record law from the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, and provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7. The story relies on interviews with state health experts, JBS employees and their families, as well as statements from JBS officials. The reporter visited the JBS plant in April and has reported on the outbreak at JBS since March.
Source: Read Full Article