By Matt Smith
The union representing workers at the JBS plant in Greeley said hundreds of absences in March were an unorganized response to infections there, whereas a previous version of this story incorrectly said the absences were a “walkoff.”
As a human tragedy unfolded at a meatpacking facility in Colorado’s Weld County in early April, the county’s chief health officer unwittingly found himself at the center of a coronavirus-driven storm that exemplifies the political, business and health priorities that bear on local officials in the eye of the pandemic, according to email correspondence seen by MarketWatch.
The health official, Mark Wallace, faced a barrage of questions and demands from sometimes competing interests including unions, business owners, state politicians and national media, the emails show.
In one early April email, after a TV station interviewed him about an outbreak at JBS USA, a Greeley, Colo.–based subsidiary of Brazil’s JBS S.A. /zigman2/quotes/203770179/delayed BR:JBSS3 -1.59% , Wallace wrote to the head of human resources at the meatpacking company: “They were not going to let up on me. ‘The cat’s out of the bag’ is what all health-care providers are saying — too many sick people already, too much spread already.”
That day would also mark the first plant-employee death in a coronavirus toll that would reach seven by May.
‘Dr. Wallace is kind of our Dr. Fauci.’
Rhonda Solis, local school-board member and spokesperson for the Latino Coalition of Weld County
The internal Weld County emails, which were accessed via a series of Colorado Public Records Act requests, chronicle the fraught struggle to contain one of America’s most severe industrial coronavirus hot spots, and provide a case study into the country’s approach to the crisis, in which much of the responsibility for setting policy with regard to the pandemic and dealing with the fallout has landed on relatively low-level local officials whose decisions often have national implications.
Despite their national importance, these newly anointed field commanders remain at the mercy of the kinds of pressures that have always buffeted small-town bureaucrats.
“Dr. Wallace is kind of our Dr. Fauci,” said Rhonda Solis, a local school-board member and a spokesperson for the Latino Coalition of Weld County. “He’s dealing with people he has to report to. And I don’t know how much leeway Dr. Wallace gets.”
Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment
The Weld County emails show Wallace pleading with elected officials for help with testing and other resources, while trying to nudge the meatpacking plant into protecting its workers. In the end, county officials rebuffed his desire for the level of county-supported testing and tracing he wanted, telling him his job was to help “open up” Weld County even in defiance of state shutdown orders. Meanwhile JBS addressed Wallace as an ally in a public-relations strategy aimed at countering worker claims that the company wasn’t doing enough to keep its workers from dying.
JBS and Weld County did not respond to requests for comment.
“They can be political hot seats, being a county health officer. I hate to say it, [but] you have to be able to walk away if it’s so toxic. If you’re unable to continue, you should stick by your principles,” said George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Teresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, said she’s been fielding calls from several chief health officers across the state who say they’re receiving threatening messages related to how they’re handling the pandemic. She expects to see a wave of resignations, she said.
Although chief health officers have the authority to close down a facility, their ability to exercise that power is dependent on cooperation with other state and county officials, including the sheriff’s office. Some health officials working in Colorado say that getting that kind of support has been difficult when different officials have differing views of the appropriate response to the pandemic.
“It’s an unconscionable position to put these professionals in,” said Anselmo. “They go into this profession to help people stay safe. Suddenly you throw them into a political quagmire, and it’s really unfair.”
On May 8, Weld County announced that Wallace had decided to leave his job at month’s end. “I am proud of the work I have done here,” the statement announcing his departure quoted him as saying.
Wallace declined to be interviewed for this story.
JBS has 4,590 full-time-equivalent workers in the Weld County seat of Greeley, where it is the largest employer. It donates significant sums to local charities, and many local residents have generations of friends and relatives who’ve been employed at the facility.
By March 30, at least 900 JBS employees in Greeley had been reported absent in what the union representing workers reportedly said was likely a mass, unorganized response to the company informing the plant of a number of coronavirus infections there. JBS officials downplayed the incident, saying the employees were likely absent for different, personal reasons.
On April 1, Wallace emailed a JBS official to say he was getting calls from area hospitals about a “quite large” number of plant workers reporting to emergency rooms, some of them needing to be put on ventilators.