Fifteen additional employees at Loudon’s Monterey Mushrooms tested positive for COVID-19.
The plant initially had 59 cases, with the majority asymptomatic. The number jumped to 74 on Friday.
The Loudon County Health Department conducted additional testing May 19, Bruce Knobeloch, Monterey Mushrooms vice president of marketing and product development, said.
“We are working very closely with the department of health, following close contact protocols, necessary quarantines and being sure our team members are aware and informed,” he said in an email correspondence. “This has reduced the number of people working at the farm each day, which has put a strain on our ability to pick and pack our fresh mushrooms. Our farm team is making an incredible effort under these trying circumstances.”
Employees were directed to self-quarantine and seek medical care. They cannot return until cleared.
As of Friday, Knobeloch said the local plant would not temporarily shut down operations.
“Our harvest and packing has been reduced in the short term, while we wait for the balance of our team members to return,” he said. “Given the nature of mushroom production, it is not possible to shut the farm down on a temporary basis without damaging the ensuing crops that will lead to a longer term closure of the farm, potentially months.”
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 second of testing, the numbers were much better, well under 10 percent of those that were tested who tested positive,” Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, Loudon County mayor, said. “... Looking at the steps they’ve taken, it’s very encouraging once they get these numbers leveled out then we’ll start seeing those decline and stay down. They’ve taken some steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The plant is paying sick time, and extra workers are sanitizing the facility.
“I think it’s just practicing good common sense and good hygiene with hand sanitizing and proper social distancing from people,” Jeff Harris, Loudon mayor, said. “Just don’t get into large crowds or if you do have to get into large crowds. Make sure you do have the proper protection as far as a face mask and things like that. At the same time, I think we need not overreact, stay calm, practice good common sense, hygiene, personal hygiene and just common practices I think we’ve all been made aware of. I think we’ll continue to do that. I think the chances are we’ll kind of get back to some sense of normalcy pretty soon.”
Harris isn’t surprised about the increase in positive cases.
“Naturally the more you test the more chances you have of getting positive results, but at the same time I think it’s something that we need to continue doing and need to continue testing,” he said. “The big thing is for people to self-quarantine when they do test positive so we can kind of limit the spread of it. I think that’s the main focus we need to try to make people understand the importance of quarantine when they aren’t exposed just to protect those people around them. I think that’s the message we got to try to get out to people is how important it is to practice social distancing and self-quarantine when someone does test positive.”