Emails suggest CDC director influenced state health decisions related to Colorado meat plant

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The Greeley JBS meat packing plant sits idle on April 16, 2020, in Greeley, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

GREELEY, Colo. (KDVR) — The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked the state to reduce health restrictions for a Colorado meat production facility that suffered one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state, emails suggest.

In an April 11 exchange, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), said she would consider less restrictive health guidelines for the JBS meat production plant in Greeley despite a joint public health order she helped to issue the previous day asking for the immediate closure of the facility.

“JBS was in touch with the VP who had (CDC) Director (Robert) Redfield call me,” she wrote.  “They want us to use CDC’s critical infrastructure guidance, (sending asymtomatic (sic) people back to work even if we suspect exposure but they have no symptoms) even with the outbreak at present level. Are you okay with that? I am if you are. Thanks.”

Mark Wallace, the former executive director of the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment (WCDPHE), wrote back, “Yes I am.”

“After the (public health) order was given, Director Redfield called Director Ryan and asked her to follow the CDC guidance — Implementing Safety Practices for Critical Infrastructure Workers Who May Have Had Exposure to a Person with Suspected or Confirmed — which is less restrictive than the order,” a CDPHE spokesperson said.

The CDC guidance allows for “critical infrastructure workers” to continue working following potential exposure to COVID-19, “provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.”

In contrast, the joint state and county public health order, dated April 10, requested that JBS immediately close to “conduct an employee testing and screening program.”

“(Director Ryan) discussed the guidance and order with Dr. Redfield at length and decided to comply, anticipating that the state would need CDC’s continued partnership to mitigate the outbreak at JBS,” said the CDPHE spokesperson. “In the end, we did not amend the order to match the CDC guidance, and JBS ultimately closed the facility.”

Despite announcing that the company would provide testing for employees, company leaders abandoned the company-wide testing plan at that time. 

“JBS tested their management for COVID-19 and based upon those results decided to close most of their processes for 14 days,” said a spokesperson for CDPHE. 

CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner said he could not confirm whether Redfield had spoken with Ryan or the reason for his alleged direct involvement with the state’s public health order.

“In Colorado, CDC officials were helping the state and local health departments, in consultation with the plant’s owners, strike the right balance of normalcy while protecting the health of the plant’s workers,” said Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesperson.

“Any decision regarding the opening and closing of the plant would have been made by state or local health officials and the plant’s owners,” he said.

“From the looks of it, this email is providing JBS with approval to send Greeley employees without symptoms back to work without tests after coworkers were confirmed positive. Behavior like this is part of why JBS Greeley became a hot spot — with nearly 300 COVID-19 cases confirmed and six essential workers dead — putting our members in unnecessary danger,” said Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7, the union that represents thousands of workers at the plant.  

Cordova said she wants a federal and criminal investigation into the events related to COVID-19that unfolded at JBS.

JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson said company officials saw a conflict between the state and county public health order and the guidelines provided by the federal government.

“We asked both CDPHE and CDC for clarification regarding why the order was inconsistent with recently issued CDC guidance,” said Richardson. “CDC and CDPHE ultimately determined the guidance should be consistent, but we were not involved in those discussions. We were informed of the change by CDPHE and WCDPHE officials.”

Richardson said the company ultimately decided to “voluntarily close the plant for an extended period of time” after consultations with the CDPHE officials. She said, “The original public order was effectively set aside.”

Richardson said JBS now has an employee health team in place that is responsible for auditing the company’s COVID-19 program, which includes making sure people are wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and practicing social distancing.

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