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Closed Rochelle food plant to test all of its 800+ workers for COVID-19

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ROCHELLE – All 800 to 900 employees of Hormel’s Rochelle Foods plant will undergo mandatory testing for coronavirus this week, Ogle County Health Department Administrator Kyle Auman said this afternoon.

Testing tents are being erected today at the plant, and the tests will be conducted by staff from Rochelle Hospital, KSB Hospital in Dixon and the health department, Auman said.

He hopes to have all employees tested by the end of the week; those who do not comply will not be allowed to return to work a week from Monday, when the plant is scheduled to reopen.

The testing will be done at no cost to the workers.

An outbreak of COVID-19 that was spreading rapidly through the ranks forced the health department to order a 2-week shutdown Friday, after plant officials did not move quickly enough to do so on their own, Auman said.

The health department had been monitoring the plant, recommending additional testing, additional steps for employee monitoring, isolating and quarantining positive cases and their close and household contacts, and also a voluntary 2-week closure.

When the number of positive cases doubled daily to nearly 30 in a week's time, Auman moved to close it down. The workers have been quarantined at home since Friday, he said.

"We needed to take drastic action or we were going to miss our opportunity" to curb the spread, he said.

Hormel was given 48 hours to accomplish the closure; by Sunday, it was down to a skeletal cleaning crew,; Auman did an inspection and signed off on the closure Monday morning. All that remains are deep-cleaning crews.

Hormel will get the word out to the employees, many of whom are Spanish-speakers, not only about the testing but also about measures to take to keep safe while under quarantine, he said.

Rochelle City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh has said that the plant employs 800 people, more than 900 if you count contractors.

An email to Hormel Tuesday has not yet been answered.

Auman called the cooperation between the two competing hospitals, one in Ogle and one in Lee County, "phenomenal."

"This impacts really our whole region," Auman said, noting that the plant has workers from Lee, Whiteside, DeKalb, Winnebago and other surrounding counties.

"I think it speaks to the nature and the strength of our partnership that were are able to respond so quickly," Auman said.

"Between Rochelle and KSB, I think we have the testing under control."

Not only will untested workers not be allowed to return to work, but they also could be compelled by court order to be tested. Auman is worried it will come to that, though.

"There was a lot of concern leading up to this, a lot of the workers had concerns and many were sacred," Auman said.

"It really is for their health and safety."

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