Juan Carlos Briseno wore a mask in the parking lot of One World Beef Packers in Brawley early April 24, awaiting his turn in a multi-step COVID-screening process to enter the plant for his morning shift.
Although Briseno said he doesn’t personally know any One World Beef employee who has contracted COVID-19, he’s uncertain whether enough is being done to ensure his health and safety by management at the beef-processing plant.
“They (OWB Packers) are providing us with safety gloves and a mask before we go into work,” Briseno, a 29-year-old Calexico resident, told a reporter from this newspaper. “In some ways, they are doing their part to keep employees safe, but who feels comfortable when people are getting sick at your place of work?”
He acknowledges there are many proactive, protective measures in place, but to what degree that helps he doesn’t know. “We’re just confused about everything, but they’re doing what they can for us,” he said.
Regardless of the risks he faces coming to work, Briseno said he was grateful to have a job.
“Food-processing firms likes ours have been deemed essential by our government and critical to the food supply chain; we feed the nation,” said Eric Brandt, chief executive officer of One World Beef, during an April 25 interview. “We’re deeply committed to this and the health and safety of our team.”
Brandt said he was informed by county Public Health Department officials that six One World Beef workers have been recorded as positively having COVID-19. That number was from sometime around April 16, Brandt added.
The reality is, however, the number of cases could be higher despite efforts by management to stem the spread of the virus among beef-plant workers.
But this is not a problem isolated to One World Beef; in general, it is unknown how widespread COVID cases are among the essential workforce in Imperial County.
Almost all the results counted by the county Public Health Department are made up of symptomatic patients who have come through local hospitals and healthcare clinics. Of the 251 total positive cases of COVID-19 the county has recorded since March 12, more than 91.6 percent have been symptomatic as of April 24, according to data on Public Health’s COVID-19 surveillance dashboard. That means, one in every 10 cases has presented with symptoms like cough or fever.
Only small pockets of the essential workers have been tested, said private physicians Brian Tyson and Tien Tan Vo, both of whom claim to have cumulatively tested around 2,800 Imperial Valley residents. And in all those essential-worker cases, there have been positive results distributed throughout the groups, both doctors said. Yet not all of those tested have been recorded by Public Health, but more on that later.
Scene Outside the Beef Plant
As Briseno spoke with a reporter, One World Beef workers checked in at a table where one security guard sprayed down employees with Lysol disinfectant, gave out a palmful of hand sanitizer and a new pair of disposable gloves, while another guard took workers’ temperatures with an infrared forehead thermometer. Down the line, Briseno said workers encounter a disinfecting shoe wash before proceeding into the facility.
Further inside the entrance, representatives from All Valley Urgent Care in El Centro were on site conducting health screenings of employees, but the clinic workers were unavailable for comment. Their presence April 24 was confirmed by an All Valley staffer on break while in the parking lot.
Seconds later, security asked a reporter at the scene to leave the premises, that employees only were allowed in the parking lot.
Things were relatively calm April 24, but that was not the case back on April 13, when Briseno arrived for his a.m. shift and witnessed hundreds of beef plant employees standing outside in the parking lot, refusing to go to work. He shared a cellphone photo he took that morning with this newspaper.
Briseno said during a separate interview April 26 that he did not take part in the work-stoppage, and he has yet to seek out the voluntary COVID screenings being offered by One World Beef management through All Valley Urgent Care, but he still goes through the basic security screenings and protocols in place to get onto the facility floor each day.
OWB Officials On Safety, Processes
“Our team has been well ahead of this (COVID-19 pandemic). There’s nothing more important than our team,” said Brandt, who along with his Chief Finance Officer, Armand Nicholi, spoke to this newspaper during an interview April 25.
Coronavirus is “out there in the public, and we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t come into our facility,” Brandt said.
Brandt and Nicholi told this newspaper One Word Beef had been taking extreme precautions to protect the employees and the food supply since around March 6, when the “pre-entrance protocols” began.
In addition to the temperature checks, and the sanitizing of and equipment handed to the plant workers, including face shields, Brandt said officials also started to further safeguard conditions on the processing floor, “sanitize common areas, locker rooms and offices multiple times a day,” he said.
Brandt said the entire inside of the building is “fogged” after the day’s last shift.
Nicholi explained “fogging” as the spraying of “atomized quaternary ammonia,” an agent approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for use on meat-processing facilities.
Additionally, Nicholi said social distancing had been put in place for workers, spreading them apart on the production floors.
By March 16, Brandt said, even lunch tables had been moved into hallways to keep workers at a distance from each other and dividers installed to further provide space.
All these changes happened before the April 13 work stoppage per the strict demands on the industry overall by the USDA on all food-processing facilities throughout the nation. Conditions and expectations were no different in Brawley, where Brandt said there are independent, contracted USDA inspectors on site every day.
Dr. Brian Tyson, owner of All Valley Urgent Care, who was contracted by One World Beef to administer voluntary health screenings of all nearly-700 employees before the work stoppage, said what was happening at the Brawley beef plant was the “gold standard” among essential employers to protect their workers.
No one else in the Imperial Valley was coming close to what One World Beef was doing, Tyson said.
What Drew Attention to OWB?
Locally, the issue began to draw the eyes of the media and the fears of One World Beef workers when national reports began to surface about meat-processing plant closures throughout the nation due to COVID contamination.
Brandt said management had already been sending symptomatic employees home to quarantine for 14 days, per U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, before Tyson was contracted en masse to run a screening program for the entire workforce. Many of those initial employees have since returned to work, Brandt said.
Since efforts have been ramped up by All Valley Urgent Care and One World Beef, testing has been conducted on about 600 workers, Tyson said, that has included a doctors’ exam, chest x-rays, a serologic test and informational and educational seminars for employees, Brandt and Tyson said.
On April 16, Tyson and his team came in and conducted three separate 35-minute lectures educating One World Beef employees about COVID-19, how to prevent it and leading a question-and-answer session. Each session was for 250 employees at a time, where chairs were spread apart to maintain social distancing, Brandt said.
That same day, a deputy county environmental health director toured the facility and informed Brandt of the six positive tests of COVID-19 the county had documented.
Where those positives came from, however, isn’t fully known, because they could not have come from the tests conducted by Tyson and his staff.
What’s more, it really isn’t known how many One World Beef employees have come down with COVID at this point.
The county told Brandt six.
Tyson said the number is around a dozen.
But Dr. Tien Tan Vo, who claims to have retested a number of false negatives from Tyson, said he thinks between 20 and 30 of those workers came back positive, a number that could in no way be substantiated for this story.
Tyson added that PCR tests also have a margin for error, with about 30 percent of them potentially coming back with false negatives because there are done incorrectly.
A Testing Issue: Who is Infected?
Tyson said April 24 he has identified at least a dozen cases through his testing methods, all of whom were immediately sent home for 14 days of quarantine per CDC guidelines.
Tyson said a second, larger category of OWB workers were sent home for seven days of quarantine. The second group were those who exhibited symptoms of illness but were not believed to be COVID-19, such as colds, regular flu or other symptomatic illnesses.
Tyson said all total, that is about 20 percent of the plant’s workforce.
But it is impossible to assess how many One World Beef employees have either fallen ill with COVID or tested positive for COVID due to dispute over Tyson’s testing methods.
The dozen or so patients he claims have or had COVID-19 cannot be confirmed officially, because his test results are not accepted by county Public Health officials.
All Valley Urgent Care uses serologic tests that are used to detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies but do not meet the CDC or Federal Drug Administration’s guidelines for detecting COVID itself.
Serologic tests, by definition, can detect that a person has been infected with and developed antibodies to one of any number of types of coronaviruses or even SARS, but they are not the determinant factor in whether a patient has had COVID-19, a specific viral infection and a specific type of coronavirus, according to the CDC and statements from the Imperial County Public Health Department emailed to this newspaper late April 24.
Tyson’s results do not factor into the daily positive case or testing numbers released by county Public Health.
Tyson acknowledges this and said that is why he also runs a battery of tests and exams that lead him to the conclusion that a patient has COVID, but that is not enough for the county.
Vo claimed April 24 he has retested many beef-plant employees who were negative under Tyson’s test, but who have come back positive under Vo’s methods.
Vo uses the FDA emergency-use-authorized polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — the swabs that go through the nose to the back of the pharynx — which do make up the positive test numbers collected by county Public Health.
Vo’s tests have made up roughly 800 of the total results recorded by the county since early March, the private healthcare provider said April 24.
Public Health surveillance data show some 1,533 patients in Imperial County have been tested using FDA-emergency-use-authorized methods as of April 24.
The numbers make sense considering local hospitals and healthcare providers only began to get more FDA-emergency-authorized testing materials in the past two weeks, Tyson confirmed, one reason he said numbers of people tested and numbers of positive cases recorded have risen so much in that time period.
Early on, Vo said he even provided both hospitals with PCR swab kits. He said he donated 50 to El Centro Regional Medical Center and 50 to Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley.
The Essential Workers Issue
Essential workers are those men and women who every day are making it possible for the rest of us to stay at home and social distance to limit the spread of COVID-19.
But it is also the essential employees who are sacrificing themselves and their families by potentially coming into contact with the contagion, whether it be frontline healthcare workers and doctors, or shelf-stockers at local grocery stores and fast-food and other restaurant workers cooking and packaging meals.
Demographic data on websites for the CDC break down COVID cases along racial lines and age groupings, and many other factors, but it has been difficult to determine at what rate or in what numbers essential workers are becoming infected beyond anecdotal data and reports from scattered communities across the nation.
“We have had multiple outbreaks at essential centers,” Tyson said April 24.
He said All Valley has conducted testing on groups and come back with positive cases from employees at Centinela and Calipatria state prisons, the Imperial County Superior Courts, local car dealerships, U.S. Customs and Border Protection workers at the Calexico-area ports of entry, even among a group of Imperial County Department of Social Services workers, results of which were not recognized by county Public Health.
“There have been positives at every one; small percentages all around,” he said. “It’s not an isolated problem to the beef plant; it’s a county problem.”
On Vo’s end, he said he has tested and gotten positive results from groups of employees of the privately owned immigration detention center in the Calexico area and other groups. Vo tested a group of 50 Border Patrol agents, with four or five cases coming back positive. He got a positive serology test from the local methadone clinic, but no positive PCR test.
OWB Happy with Efforts
Meanwhile, Brandt and Nicholi were asked why they chose to go with All Valley Urgent Care if the test results would not be accepted by the county.
Neither gave any indication they knew that was the case when they chose to contract with All Valley.
“We’re not medical professionals. We sought out to get medical screening for our team members. That was our intent,” Brandt said.
“We made it available to anybody who wanted to get tested,” Nicholi added.
Both have been pleased with the screening program put in place by Tyson because of its multiple layers, which go far beyond one specific test for COVID-19.
“I think it’s definitely helped alleviate concerns. I think with the educational process, people are learning more each day,” Brandt said.
From day one, Brandt said it has been his mission to protect One World Beef’s workers.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team. We have the best workforce in the entire country,” he said. “We’re feeding the nation here.”
“We’re so blessed and so proud of this team,” Nicholi added, saying he has witnessed his boss personally step up onto the processing floor in the absence of quarantined workers.
“That should be part of your story: Eric Brandt grew up in Brawley, a third-generation cattle feeder. Over the past three weeks, Eric has been on the line, in full gear, filling in for those out sick or who can’t be there,” Nicholi said.
Jayson Barniske contributed reporting to this story. Barniske conducted the initial interview with Juan Carlos Briseno at the OWB Packers parking lot in Brawley.