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59 coronavirus cases at Loudon plant

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’.”

U.S. 321 intersection almost finished

Construction on the intersection of U.S. Highways 321 and 11 in Lenoir City is nearing completion as workers put final touches on a project that has taken years.

Mark Nagi, Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesman, said contractor J&M Grading Division LLC plans to have “all the major items” finished by the first week of June. The final layer of asphalt was finished last week.

“Once the topping is complete, a crew will be on site to grind the concrete paving for smoothness,” Nagi said in an email correspondence. “(This) week they will be placing final striping and stamping the textured crosswalks.”

Alan Hull, TDOT operations district supervisor, expects a final walk-through soon.

“Once they finish up major items, the signals, the striping, paving, all of that, which we’re expecting it into June, we’ll do a walk-through and it’s just picking up little punch list items,” Hull said. “We call it a punch list — it’s just any small things that you could come back and fix. It’s not necessarily a pay item but it’s just any cleanup or any we’ve got all these control measures out here.

“... We’ll put together a list that says, ‘Before you guys are out of here, you need to clean up these items’,” he added. “So you’ll see them a couple weeks after, a couple weeks into June probably, just picking up on the side roads, picking up barrels, cleaning up, doing some little touch-up stuff.”

The project included signage, greenery and sidewalks and widening two miles of U.S. 321 from U.S. Highway 11 to Simpson Road East.

Work began in October 2017. The project was originally projected to be complete by June 2019.

“We are so excited to see this completed to help with more efficient traffic flow, to help access our businesses and to improve the safety of our highway and our intersection,” Amber Scott, Lenoir City administrator, said. “Also, it’s going to add a lot of beauty, a lot of aesthetics to that particular area. I’m sure you’ve seen our marker signs down there, they turned out wonderfully, more than we could have imagined. So I believe this will be really good for Lenoir City and for the county.”

Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens said he knows motorists are more than ready.

“Obviously, it’s near completion and certainly I along with anybody else has had to deal with the traffic issues through there for the last two-plus years is certainly glad it’s over with,” Aikens said. “I can tell you I’ve had a lot of comments in the last couple weeks of how great it looks and such a big improvement and we’re certainly glad it’s near completion.”

Lenoir City officials will now shift focus to improved signalization of traffic lights on U.S. 321 from the intersection to the Interstate 75 interchange and on U.S. 11 from the intersection to G Street downtown.

“Right now the (National Environmental Policy Act) document for the signalization project is being evaluated and I understand that it’s in the queue with TDOT for review right now with that office, and with people working from home, there is a delay, so I’ve been told,” Scott said. “I check with them once a week, but once that’s done we’ll get the notice to proceed with construction and we’ll be able to bid the job. So I would say this summer we’ll be bidding the job.”

Scott said the project would be financed by a $1.6 million grant. Funding was initially $1.3 million, but the state added $300,000 for Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades.

Aikens hopes to have the project done within 180 days.

“Obviously, it’s just like with (Highways) 321 and 11, any time you’re dealing with federal and state funds the Is have to be dotted and the Ts crossed,” Aikens said. “So it’s just a slow process but we hope to get it underway and ... traffic will move better. I guess I get as many complaints about the traffic signals, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ Well, we’ve spent thousands of dollars. The problem is it’s a very dated system and we’ll have them synchronized and in a week or two they’ll be back out of cycle, so it’s just a very dated system. ... We understand the issues and we’re doing something about it, it’s just people have to be patient.”

Local Young Achievers still recognized

Loudon County’s annual Young Achievers celebration scheduled for April 16 was canceled because of the pandemic.

But that didn’t stop Loudon County Education Foundation from honoring students and teachers who excelled during the school year.

“When the school systems were closed, we determined we would be unable to hold the event due to the number of people who typically attend,” Michele Lewis, LCEF executive director, said in an email correspondence. “We usually have between 1,200-1,500 people in attendance. We were waiting to see if school would reconvene and, if so, we planned to reschedule. A call to First Baptist (Church) of Lenoir City confirmed that activities at this location were suspended until further notice. We had an idea to visit school assemblies to make presentations if school reconvened for the end of the 2019-20 school year, but as we all know — that wasn’t possible.”

This year marks the 26th Excellence in Education awards ceremony.

“This community recognition of accomplishments for 236 teachers and students is important,” Lewis said. “The award may not get a student into Harvard, but the sense of pride that we are able to create is phenomenal. We have Lt. Gov. Randy McNally at the event, shaking everyone’s hand saying, ‘Good Job!’ We have state Reps. Kent Calfee and Lowell Russell, we have mayors Tony Aikens, Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw and Jeff Harris there. We have the captains of our local industries, the superintendents and a massive audience of friends, families, teachers, volunteers, all clapping proudly saying, ‘Look what you have accomplished, we are so proud of you!’

“And although our winners won’t have quite that level of recognition this year, they all have had brothers, sisters, friends or teachers that they have seen go through this process and they know that they now belong to that group of winners and their community is proud of them also,” he added.

This year there were 211 Young Achiever classroom winners, 20 Young Achiever grade-level winners chosen from classroom winners and four Young Achiever finalists, who were chosen from grade-level winners. Nine essay contest winners earned first, second and third place in each level, Lewis said.

Six Outstanding Teachers and six New Teachers of the Year — three from each school system — were also recognized.

“The 5-6 grade-level winner and the 7-8 grade-level winner will be submitted to the International Leadership Network to compete on the national level,” Lewis said. “We send the application for each student and then receive notification of placement. We have had two national winners.”

Prizes are being mailed to participants, Lewis said. Teachers and students are given plaques, gift cards or certificates.

One Young Achiever Finalist is Fort Loudoun Middle School eighth-grader Jaxon Walker.

“I was actually kind of surprised, there were so many good people that were running against me,” Walker said. “I thought one of them were going to get it, but I guess I’m kind of lucky that I got it.”

Walker was grateful for the recognition.

“I think it’s pretty cool because they know how much work I put into being smart, and I just try my hardest,” he said. “I think they understand what I try to do.”

Lenoir City Intermediate/Middle School fourth-grade English teacher Jordan Barbour was recognized as a New Teacher of the Year. To be recognized is a “great honor and really an accomplishment,” she said.

“It just means a lot to be recognized after teaching there for three years and putting in a lot of hard work and to just be recognized for that is really great,” Barbour said.

She believes the celebration is a good way to honor students and educators.

“I think it’s really great for the students, especially for them to be recognized for all their hard work and accomplishments and for teachers, too,” Barbour said. “Not just inside the classroom but for our kids and all the extracurricular activities they do and things that they participate in outside of the classroom, too.”

County group seeking memories

The Loudon County Sesquicentennial Committee is seeking help from families who participated in the centennial celebration in 1970.

As the celebration nears, the committee is hoping to collect memories, stories, photos and keepsakes from 50 years ago.

Bo Carey, committee president, said the group also wants residents to come forward with info about what could possibly be in the time capsule.

“If anyone is actually alive who placed something in that capsule, we would like them to report what it was so we can look for it when we examine the contents,” Carey said. “I saw a lady in the grocery story yesterday. She said, ‘Well, my father put something in there … I know he was a coin collector, and he had a lot of 50 cent coins.’ So I said, ‘You know what? We’ll look for those when we get into it.’ So that’s what we’re trying to do right now is get anybody who has any knowledge of what was placed in that capsule 50 years ago … to register with us right now what they know.”

Coming forward with knowledge will ensure families get precious items back, but also helps the general public. Carey hopes to spread knowledge about Loudon County’s history with the items retrieved from the capsule and the information learned.

“On the other hand, if they knew it was something that was supposed to be for the general public, we can identify it and know more about it when we place that out there for all Loudon Countians to observe,” Carey said. “We plan to have some type of display case and possibly show it in different parts of the county toward the end of the year to show everyone what was placed in that time capsule 50 years ago. So that’s the big thing right now. We’re looking for recognition. We’re looking for identification.”

The committee is also looking to collect the stories and memories of people who were alive during the 1970 celebration.

“We would like to share (their stories),” Ruth McQueen, committee member, said. “We would like to add them to the Loudon County history. We have the Loudon County historian on our committee, and he has a group that I think is one of the most exciting things that’s happened because of our committee that he is filming interviews. He started with some of the older veterans in the county but has expanded that to people with interesting stories from all walks of life.

“If we can identify some of these folks, we would like to collect their stories, interview them, do some video, so we can have this for posterity sake,” she added. “We probably will put some of this material into the time capsule that will be established this year for other people to open 50 years from now.”

For more information, contact the committee at 150yearsofloco@gmail.com or visit www.150yearsofloco.com.