Editor's note: The baby mentioned in this story died on Friday, according to Crescencio López-González. "Yesterday, she was turned away from the hospital. Today, she went again and after surgery, the baby didn't make it," López-González wrote. Due to press deadlines, this update will not appear in Saturday's print edition.
As Cache County is seeing dozens of newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 a day, families are starting to reach out for help — especially in the Latino community, which according to early numbers has seen nearly double the number of infections of any other ethnicity in the health district.
On Friday, 198 new cases were confirmed in the Bear River Health District, many of them tied to an outbreak at a local meat processing facility, according to health officials.
While it’s not certain that JBS in Hyrum is the facility the state is referring to, and while there are indications of employees at other food processing plants in the district getting sick, dozens of social media comments purporting to be from JBS workers are voicing fear.
One JBS employee, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution from the company, stated that as of Friday that “half of the plant is gone” but the factory is still not shutting down. The plant has been turning cattle away because they do not have workers to process them, the worker stated. The employee stated workers are all worried about losing their lives because the company has refused to close for two weeks to stop the outbreak.
Contradictory to JBS’s official statements, multiple workers have told The Herald Journal that they were told to continue working during the pandemic despite feeling ill.
For months, JBS has declined to comment on numbers of sick employees or under what circumstances the plant might be closed. Instead, the company has touted precautions such as face shields, increased distance between employees and other measures. The posts often include some variation of the hashtag “FeedingAmerica.”
But when workers catch COVID-19 and are asked by health officials to self-isolate, who will feed them?
Crescencio López-González, an advocate in Cache Valley Latino communities and a professor at USU, recently set up a donation drive and crowdfunding for one such family with a pregnant mother. The family wishes to remain anonymous due to concern over stigmatization or backlash from employers and others in the valley.
“I will never wish this to anybody,” the pregnant mother wrote to The Herald Journal. “You can start feeling good for a little while and then get sicker and unable to get up and care for yourself. It is stressful and overwhelming. You don’t know what is going to happen. You don’t know if you are going to get better in a few days or weeks.”
The mother initially thought she just had the flu. After a day or so of worsening symptoms, though, her sister-in-law told her that the co-workers of her brother had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Her brother’s employer waited a week to tell workers about the infection risk, after more people had contracted the virus, she wrote.
“By that time, it was already too late because I had already contracted the virus,” the mother wrote.
When the pregnant mother found out she probably didn’t have the regular flu, she was terrified.
“I was scared and worried,” the mother wrote. “I was scared for myself and the baby I am carrying. I was afraid that the symptoms were going to get worse and something was going to happen to my baby and me.”
She became so ill she couldn’t care for her other children, which was especially a concern for her 1-year-old daughter. Her sister lives in the same household, and even though she was also sick, she was well enough to care for the toddler.
“But I felt terrible because my young girl would come to me and I couldn’t even pick her up,” the mother wrote. “She would cry and demand my attention, and I couldn’t give her any because I had fever and my headache was very strong, and I was experiencing other symptoms.”
The mother felt “so sick that I couldn’t get up just to even take care of my own self.”
The mother lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic, but her employer told her they’d call if they needed more workers. By the time they did call to offer work, months later, the mother was feeling sick and suspected she had the virus. They said they’d call back to check on her, but they never did.
The mother’s sister-in-law was the first person to get tested for COVID-19. When the test came back positive, other household members were contacted by the health department. They were interviewed about what symptoms they had and were asked to self-isolate.
“The person who contacted me told me that they were going to check on us every day, but they never called again,” the mother wrote.
With the count of confirmed infections rising by dozens daily, what help do sick households need most? The mother wrote that many things were a challenge, but especially getting food and other essentials.
“I couldn’t get up, and I was told to stay home and prevent the spread of the virus,” the mother wrote. “During this time it could have been helpful if the community would offer to buy food and house essentials and take it to my house. I’m pretty sure that other families would want the same thing.”
After López-González started a GoFundMe to help the family, he started getting several messages from others looking for help.
“The places that these families are getting infected are meat processing companies in Tremonton, Richmond, and Hyrum,” López-González wrote.
Since the families can’t go out shopping, López-González has been driving donations of food and essentials to them.
“It angers and saddens me that the government organizations in Cache Valley haven’t mobilized to coordinate a better response,” López-González wrote. “We have seen in other parts of the country how people working in food processing plants are getting infected and infecting others. It would only be a matter of time that it would happen here.”
López-González said he’s still frustrated with local health officials and hasn’t seen much official information posted in Spanish.
“We are important contributors to the economy and paying the price with our health and with our lives,” López-González wrote.
JBS could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday. In May, the company announced it is investing more than $200 million to “support its team members and local communities in North America,” including viral safeguards and $50 million in “donations to alleviate food insecurity, strengthen long-term community infrastructure and well-being, and support COVID-19 emergency response and relief efforts.”
Lizette Villegas, who runs the Facebook group La Pulguita de Logan, reached out to BRHD to coordinate a Spanish-language Q&A session on the page on Friday.
The GoFundMe for the family of the pregnant mother has raised about $2,000. It can be found at gofundme.com/f/myebm-family-in-need.