Confidential statewide coronavirus outbreak data shows workplace, school and prison outbreaks are driving the increases — and that many of these outbreaks have never been made public. (Photo: wellesenterprises / Getty Images)
Like many Midwestern states, Illinois has struggled with rising coronavirus cases and death counts recently, surpassing 300,000 confirmed cases this month and recording its highest daily death count since late June on Friday.
Public health officials issued a “warning list” for 28 Illinois counties at risk for coronavirus surges and blamed, in part, businesses who were “blatantly disregarding mitigation measures, people not social distancing, gathering in large groups and not using face coverings.”
Now, confidential statewide coronavirus outbreak data, obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation as part of a collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, shows workplace, school and prison outbreaks are driving the increases — and that many of these outbreaks have never been made public.
The Illinois Department of Public Health, citing a state communicable diseases code, does not release details about where many outbreaks have occurred, limiting its disclosures to long-term care and assisted living facilities. Separately, the Illinois Department of Corrections and some county health departments regularly release numbers of infected inmates and prison staff.
But the internal statewide data we obtained — prepared by the state health department and covering four different dates between July and September — gives detailed information and case counts for nearly 2,600 separate outbreaks across Illinois.
“Even though they are close to it, sometimes the infected don’t know that there’s an outbreak where they work. It’s a problem,” said Dr. Michael D. Cailas, an associate professor of occupational and environmental health sciences at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, who reviewed the confidential state data for this story. Cailas, who has mapped Chicagoland long-term care outbreaks, added that many of the workplace outbreaks in Illinois are simply “not known” to the public.
In response to questions, the Illinois Department of Public Health said that it is bound by state and federal laws designed to protect the identity of those infected. “Another consideration is the fact that people may not have become infected at the business location,” said department spokesman Melaney Arnold. As part of its contract tracing efforts, the health department is compiling data on the types of facilities and locations where outbreaks are occurring and is “working to make this information available.”
The data shows:
The single biggest source of coronavirus infections in Illinois are federal, state and county prisons and jails. The Cook County Jail has 1,074 positive cases, the largest count of any single outbreak.
But significant outbreaks at other Illinois prisons, including Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, near Chicago; East Moline Correctional Center in Rock Island; and Robinson Correctional in Crawford, brings the prison total as of Sept. 30 to nearly 3,400 cases across 27 different facilities. That’s nearly double the almost 1,800 prison figure for Illinois reported by the Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
In response to questions, the Illinois Department of Corrections said its response to the coronavirus “continues to be deliberate and aggressive,” noting that, in mid-March, it suspended visitation and placed all of its facilities in quarantine to stem the virus’s spread.
Aside from personal protective equipment and cleaning, all state prison staff are screened and temperature checked; inmates are regularly reviewed for early release; and the department appointed a statewide infection coordinator to handle the response.
An outbreak at the Great Lakes Naval Base has been Illinois’s second-largest outbreak, accounting for 409 positive cases, which had not previously been made public. The numbers increased 125% in September and it was the largest outbreak in the state over the past month, with 228 new cases.
The Department of Defense does not release the number of positive COVID-19 cases at its facilities due to “operational security,” a Great Lakes spokesman said. All active duty personnel are required to wear masks and are prohibited from activities in the local communities, The base is continuously sanitized and has also converted its drill halls into barracks in order to implement social distancing.
Many of the meatpacking plant outbreaks have been far worse than what was publicly known. In the cases of five plants that had been identified by name — Aurora Packing Co., in Kane; JBS in Beardstown; Smithfield locations in both Monmouth and St. Charles and Rochelle Foods, which is owned by Hormel, in Ogle — the number of cases was at least double what has been reported.
The data shows outbreaks following multiple graduation, prom and birthday parties, weddings and trips — including a wedding reception in nearby Washington, Mo., which was responsible for 10 cases and a “college party” in late August involving “many sports teams at local community college” in Springfield that was responsible for 24 positive cases.
Explore the database: View the Illinois facilities that had a coronavirus outbreak
Despite mask mandates and social distancing measures being widely encouraged through the summer, dozens of outbreaks were directly tied to lax enforcement or gatherings that flouted public health guidelines.
Twelve cases were tied to a dance recital in neighboring Missouri where such gatherings were legal and “mask enforcement did not happen.”
A 120-person golf event in July at the Elks Golf Club, with an open bar and numerous spectators, resulted in 14 cases. One of the players was symptomatic. The club did not return a message left on its office phone.
Ed Kabrick Beef, a Plainville butcher shop, had two cases because “masks were not being worn” and that the “first case was symptomatic and infectious while working next to the second case.” The person who picked up the phone at Ed Kabrick said they were too busy to comment.
Only a few weeks into the school year, cases at more than 100 elementary, middle and high schools were on the list. The data showed that an outbreak at the 800-student Sparta Lincoln School in Randolph was the largest with 18 cases.
According to Dr. Gabe Schwemmer, the superintendent of Sparta School District No. 140, the outbreak at the school began in mid-September when a substitute teacher tested positive, followed by four other staff members and a student.
The school closed for two weeks starting on Sept. 14. Typically, schools in the district close when there are at least three active cases. But after closing, the Sparta Lincoln outbreak spread to the family members of students and staff.
Contact tracing by the Randolph County Health Department ultimately led to 18 positive cases, many of whom were family members of those infected. The school has since reopened, with temperature checks, a handwashing schedule and a mask mandate, among other measures.
Prisons and jails
One of the most alarming reports in the statewide data was about the Jacksonville Correctional Center, which has had at least 247 cases among its inmates, guards and staff.
Field notes from the Morgan County Health Department show that of the nine Department of Corrections employees who initially tested positive, seven were linked to a retirement party in late July and all of those infected employees had been regularly going into work.
At some point early in the outbreak, the notes indicate that the prison and health department disagreed on whether to test inmates.
“At this time DOC does not want to test inmates. It has been recommended by the health department that all staff and inmates be tested due to exposure risk,” the notes read.
Morgan County Health Department Administrator Dale Bainter said Jacksonville prison testing was ultimately “done internally through the state” and the department “assisted in any way we could.”
In response, the Department of Corrections said the prison, which has dormitory-style housing, posed “unique challenges,” namely its minimal isolation space and security concerns. “As such, we continue to diligently strategize with Illinois Department of Public Health officials and infectious disease consultants to control and mitigate the spread of the virus within IDOC facilities,” the department said in a statement.
Smithfield Foods’ Monmouth plant is Illinois’ second-worst meatpacking outbreak in the state, just behind Tyson in Joslin (202 cases). The Smithfield plant has had 188 confirmed COVID-19 cases and seven probable cases, according to the state data.
The facility closed for a week in late April but the Warren County Health Department only disclosed at the time that three of its 1,700 employees tested positive for the coronavirus.
The virus’s peak at the plant was from May to mid-June, according to county health director Jenna Link. The plant struggled to obtain masks in March and April, but conditions at the plant improved once the company secured masks and began to separate workers on the production line, Link said.
Smithfield has struggled with large outbreaks at several of its plants in Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin. Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for “failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm” at its Sioux Falls, S.D., plant, where at least 1,294 employees tested positive for the coronavirus and four died. The company took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times defending its practices and accusing critics of “perpetuating a false narrative.”
In a statement to the Midwest Center, Smithfield said less than one percent of all of its employees had contracted COVID-19 because of its safety measures.
“For our part, we have incurred incremental expenses related to COVID-19 totaling over $500 million to date to protect our employees and keep America fed,” the statement read.” We have done everything we can, as fast as we can.”
In Rochelle, The Ogle County Health Department ordered the Hormel plant to close in mid-April because it wasn’t following the department’s plan to contain the outbreak, according to WREX. About 30 cases were identified publicly.
But, after the plant tested all its workers in May, the numbers increased rapidly, according to a company statement. About 120 workers tested positive at that point.
Since then, the company has installed barriers, required masks and is randomly testing employees daily, according to the statement. As of Sept. 30, 137 Rochelle workers have tested positive.
“We have been proactive in communicating often to (our workforce) ensuring that they know that it is okay, and encouraged, to stay at home when feeling unwell,” according to the statement.
In Beardstown, the JBS plant has had a total of 125 cases as of Sept. 30. The plant only had two active cases as of Tuesday, spokesperson Cameron Bruett said.
“Our random, routine surveillance testing of asymptomatic team members ensures our preventive measures remain effective as the pandemic continues,” he said in a statement.
Also included in the records are meatpacking facilities that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted in two weekly summaries but were not identified publicly.
These are mostly smaller plants with dozens of COVID-19 cases, such as Pork King Packing in McHenry (45 cases), Stampede Meat in Chicago (38 cases) and OSI Ashland, also in Chicago (21 cases). The companies did not return requests for comment.
Siddhant Shandilya of the Documenting COVID-19 project contributed data analyses and visualizations for this report.
This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The center is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. Gannett funds a fellowship at the center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.
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