59 coronavirus cases at Loudon plant

Monterey Mushrooms employee Natividad Gonzalez picks baby bella mushrooms in one of the growing rooms in 2017.

Monterey Mushrooms in Loudon has dozens of COVID-19 cases, more than doubling the number of Loudon County infections over the weekend.

Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said 57 workers tested late last week by the Loudon County Health Department came back positive for COVID-19. An “overwhelming majority” of the workers were asymptomatic.

Bradshaw was first notified Sunday by the state and said he posted the information online to “get in front of it a little bit.”

Bruce Knoeblech, Monterey Mushrooms vice president of marketing and product development, said 59 employees have coronavirus. Two initial positive tests led to the testing of other employees.

“Friday afternoon, following information shared with us by the Tennessee Department of Health of positive COVID-19 test results for two employees, they recommended and we supported testing all employees at this facility,” Knobeloch said in an email correspondence. “Their rapid response enabled testing to be done on Saturday for almost 300 of our employees. The balance of the team (approximately 250 employees) will be tested within the next few days. Results received back early Sunday morning identified an additional 57 employees testing positive for COVID-19. Those employees have been contacted and been directed to self-quarantine and seek medical help from their medical provider or local health department.”

The news comes after Wampler’s announced two employees tested positive at its Lenoir City plant.

“You never want to see a jump like that, you never want to see it,” Bradshaw said. “At the same time, you test mass quantities it’s going to happen. We were really very blessed when Wampler’s did their test they only had the two out of their mass numbers and that was just incredible news. ... I think when it’s all said and done Monterey’s going to be able to say the same thing. I used to work over at the mushroom plant over 25 years ago and as far as being sanitary that’s as clean a place there is. Now it does horse manure, that’s what you have to grow mushrooms in, but as far as keeping the place clean and sanitized they do an outstanding job at it.”

The Tennessee Department of Health reported Sunday that Loudon County had 48 confirmed cases and 42 had recovered. Cases Tuesday morning jumped to 94 with 43 recovered.

“I don’t think this will be the only time we see this,” Jeff Harris, Loudon mayor, said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with opening things back up or anything like that; I mean it’s not tied to that. I think they did have one employee that did have symptoms and tested positive and I guess that spread through some of the rest of them that are asymptomatic to it and didn’t have symptoms but still tested positive. From what I’ve been told, they’re taking it very serious and putting measures in place. I’m assuming they’ve quarantined all 57 of these employees, so they’ve been quarantined.”

While asymptomatic cases concern Harris, he wants residents to remember the majority recover.

“That’s a statistic I think gets lost a lot in a lot of the details sometimes,” he said. “Yes, it is a virus and it is something that spreads very quickly and got to be cautious of it and roll out precautions and everything, but most of the people recover just fine from it, like with the flu or some other sickness.”

Knobeloch said precautions have been implemented to minimize the spread, including staggered breaks and rest periods, reduced production crew workers to maintain social distancing, installation of plexiglass and other physical barriers to create space between packing line employees, social distancing guidelines in English and Spanish, laminated signs in English and Spanish on cafeteria tables and break rooms and signs on walls, open “break rooms” to maximize social distancing and limited access on the farm to only essential personnel.

Employees are also required to wear a mask and asked to go home and self-quarantine if they experience flu-like symptoms.

The plant is paying sick time, and extra workers are sanitizing the facility.

“We are also in the final stages of implementing temperature screening at the farm, combined with daily wellness screening to help identify team members with any symptoms,” Knobelech said. “... We engaged with and fully supported this COVID-19 testing for our employees in an effort to support the general health and welfare of our team, their families and the greater community. Our primary focus at this time is the health and safety of our team members. Without them we would not be able to provide our customers and their consumers the healthy food we proudly grow and continue to provide as an essential agricultural business.”

Harris stressed staying calm.

“A council member put a post on Facebook about it,” Harris said. “It just creates hysteria when you put up false information that’s not really confirmed. I mean you have people thinking they’re going to get it from food, which is pretty much a known fact you can’t. That’s the last thing we want to do is just get everybody all nervous and upset about it when we just need to stay calm and not overreact and deal with it. ... That’s thing you need a public official to do is — we need to be supporting this business and not causing more of an uproar with it.”

Loudon City Councilman Tim Brewster posted concerns online Sunday about Monterey Mushroom, urging residents to “not eat them, do not touch them, put on a glove and throw them away.” He has since removed the post.

“The point of my statement yesterday was why take a risk with an epidemic that is killing people over a $1.99 cent pack of mushrooms,” Brewster said in a Facebook post Monday. “Eat all the mushrooms you want. I was just trying to keep everyone informed. I didn’t realize it was going to cause all the liberal head explosions that it caused.

“I put a post out there for people to be careful,” he added. “There’s just so many people that took it out of context and made it negative. As soon as I got the information yesterday, I thought, ‘Man, I need to get a hold of people that bought these things and let them know’.”

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