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23 Jerome potato plant employees have tested positive for coronavirus

JEROME — Public health officials have identified another large coronavirus outbreak at an Idaho food processing facility — this time in the Magic Valley.

At least 23 employees of Rite Stuff Foods, which makes specialty potato products in Jerome, have tested positive for coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon. Brianna Bodily, spokeswoman for South Central Public Health, said 11 of those workers are no longer being monitored, in isolation or considered infectious.

Results for more tests are still pending. No fatalities are linked to the outbreak in the facility, according to South Central Public Health.

John MacArthur, the managing director of Rite Stuff Foods, said the company learned that more than 10 employees were sick late last week.

“Immediately after learning of these cases, Rite Stuff Foods determined that identifying cases would help protect employees and limit spread, so we employed a mass testing effort and tested all employees at the facility,” MacArthur wrote in a statement emailed to the Statesman. “A mobile testing unit came to the facility on Tuesday, May 19, and tested all workers.”

The testing allowed the company to identify areas in the facility where exposure could have occurred, MacArthur said. Employees are now required to wear additional protective equipment and undergo temperature checks before entering the building.

“In order to provide a safe working environment for our employees at the facility, we temporarily closed all production lines for sanitation and increased precautions in the facility,” MacArthur wrote. “We’ve revised shifts to decrease numbers of employees and are currently working with each employee on contact tracing.”

All sick employees will be compensated for time off work as required by the Families First Coronavirus Act, according to MacArthur.

Coronavirus cases in the South Central Public Health District, particularly in the Magic Valley, have spiked in recent weeks. Twin Falls County, which borders Jerome, led the district with eight new cases on Thursday. With 286 confirmed cases, it trails only Ada (739) and Blaine (499) among the hardest-hit counties in the state, according to case counts posted by the state’s seven health districts.

At least two other large facilities in Idaho’s agricultural and food processing sector have reported large outbreaks in the last month. Roughly 25 employees linked to CS Beef Packers, a meatpacking plant in Kuna, have tested positive for coronavirus since March. The company has identified no additional cases since May 9.

Fry Foods shut down food processing facilities in Weiser — as well as one over the border in Ontario, Oregon — after employees tested positive for coronavirus in early May. More than 20 Fry Foods employees have tested positive for COVID-19, although the company has resumed limited production with employees that tested negative.

There is no evidence of food or food packaging being involved in the transmission of the coronavirus, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

PHOTOS: F-15E and A-10 fly over St. Luke's Magic Valley

'An invisible war' — Staff, families clinging to bright spots amid heartbreak as COVID-19 cases rock elder-care centers

TWIN FALLS — Mike McNeill is a six-foot-four, broad-shouldered man in his early fifties with a salt-and-pepper goatee.

He’s taking a knee in the grass outside Bridgeview Estates, where he’s the maintenance director, talking about what life has been like the past three weeks. Every five minutes or so he apologizes because he has to pause, wipe away tears with one of his big hands and wait a second for the lump in his throat to pass.

“We’re fighting an invisible war,” McNeill said. “There’s just not a damn thing we can do about it.”

Bridgeview Estates is one of several long-term care facilities in the Magic Valley where COVID-19 has found its way in. Bridgeview Estates Executive Director Cindy Riedel said as of May 21, Bridgeview had 19 COVID-19-positive residents, three infected residents in the hospital and six residents who have died from the disease. For residents, staff and family members, the past few weeks have been brutal.

Bridgeview staff get to know residents well, and losing one is like losing a family member, McNeill said.

“I’ve been through a lot,” he said, choking up. “But I’ve never been through this …”

Despite the sorrow, it’s the positive moments that stick out in McNeill’s mind. There have been many, and he clings to them. He calls them wins, and he says everyone at Bridgeview looks for them constantly. Making someone laugh is a win. So is making someone smile.

Magic Valley long-term care facilities are on lockdown. Only employees are going in or out. Residents, who often struggle to deal with solitude under normal circumstances, have had to cope with new levels of loneliness. Family members can call, video chat or visit through the window, but they say it’s not the same.

The past few weeks have led to some of the most profound moments in McNeill’s life. He’s also seen things he describes as miraculous. One moment has stood out among the rest.

“The hardest thing so far was the horse at the window,” he said.

A little while ago, one resident’s family came by her window for a visit. But the family didn’t just walk up to say hello. The woman’s young granddaughter rode a big horse right up to the glass. That gesture overwhelmed McNeil.

“It just blew me away, the extent we’re going to try to make the best out of a bad situation,” he said. “I had to walk away.”

COVID-19 wreaking havoc among the elderly

Hundreds of nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country have been devastated by COVID-19. According to data collected by the New York Times, a third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been nursing home residents or workers — and the number could be higher.

According to the South Central Public Health District, there have been 66 COVID-19 cases among long-term care facility residents and 60 among employees. Idaho isn’t releasing information on which facilities have had cases. South Central Public Health is not sharing information on the number of deaths at facilities.

At least eight of the 19 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths in Twin Falls County as of Thursday were at Bridgeview Estates and Canyons Retirement Community.

Long-term care facilities here began locking down and restricting visitation in February and March, before the virus had begun to spread locally.

Whenever a staff member enters a facility they have their temperature taken and are screened for COVID-19 symptoms. They wash their hands. When they leave at the end of their shift, they do it all over again.

But COVID-19 has proven difficult to keep out. Multiple long-term care facility owners told the Times-News that COVID-19 can make its way in no matter how careful you are. Part of the challenge is that many people who get COVID-19 don’t show symptoms, and staff at these facilities work in constant physical contact with residents.

COVID-19 got into Canyons Retirement Community more than a month ago, infecting several residents and employees and killing several hospice patients. Troy Bell, owner of Tanabell services — which owns Canyons Retirement Community and Serenity Transitional Care in Twin Falls, said at least two deaths at Canyons are attributable to COVID-19. He also said that Canyons has been COVID-19 free for over 25 days.

“Sometimes screening isn’t enough,” Bell said. “We can screen all we want. But taking a temperature doesn’t always work.”

Pandemic loneliness

Even at facilities without COVID-19 cases, the strict quarantine measures have been difficult for residents.

“They’re so lonely,” said Cathy Lynch, owner and administrator of Cedar Draw Assisted Living in Filer. “To go through Easter and Mother’s Day, that’s pretty sad without your family.”

Carolyn Bolton’s mom lives at Serenity Transitional Care, where there haven’t been any cases. But she said her mom’s mental health is suffering. Knowing that the lockdown and visitation changes are due to a pandemic doesn’t ease her sadness.

“Mom feels very much abandoned because family and friends can’t visit,” Bolton said.

Many long-term care facility owners, and family members of residents, said it’s not so much the fear of contracting COVID-19 that’s worrying their loved ones right now. It’s being cooped up and not being able to see their families in person that is causing the most pain.

“They feel locked in,” said Tracy Garwood, who co-owns three assisted living facilities in Buhl. None of Garwood’s facilities have had COVID-19 cases. “They feel like they’re in jail. They can’t have visitors — yes, they can through the window, but it’s not the same. A good old hug goes a long way.”


Evelyn Murray, 102, talks to her daughter Midge Bartosovsky by phone and reflected in the window of her residence Thursday at River Rock Assisted Living in Buhl. Murray, an avid Boston Red Sox fan has pictures hanging up in the background.

One of Garwood’s residents, a woman in her 90s, has gotten her hair done almost every Thursday of her life until now. Losing that weekly routine has been tough.

“To her, that was the whole world,” Garwood said.

Katie Neff’s mother, Kathy Neff, lives at Creekside Care Center in Jerome, which has not had any cases. Kathy has Alzheimer’s, and Katie said her mother’s awareness of COVID-19 is limited. But it’s still hard not to see her mom every day.

“I know it’s really hitting my dad really hard,” Katie Neff said. “He’ll just sit and look out the window and say, ‘Man, I miss my baby.’”

Most of the long-term care facility administrators and staff members the Times-News spoke to said they’ve been blown away by the community’s support. Lynch mentioned the Filer Fire Department lifted everyone’s spirits when they came to wash the windows. Many mentioned donations of sewn masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. All of that has helped immensely, they said.

Health care workers stepping up

Even in normal times long-term care facility staff go through a lot.

“It’s a low-paying job,” Lynch said. “You can honestly go work at McDonald’s and make more money than what these girls make.”

Long-term care facilities have always struggled to find workers. In addition to the low pay and what are often odd hours, the job itself is difficult.

McNeill and Bridgeview Estates nurse and supervisor Heather Kunz both said that staff have been incredible throughout this ordeal. People are often working 12- to 14-hour days. They’ve continued coming to work, despite the risk.

“Every day I’m astonished by the staff that are still showing up,” Kunz said. “They’ve all gone above and beyond their normal duties.”

McNeill said he’s been overwhelmed by the resolve and dedication of Bridgeview’s nurses and healthcare workers.

“I watched (one nurse) walk out of a room, and she was in tears,” McNeill said. “And I walked up to her, and I just said, ‘Are you OK?’ And she said no. And I looked at her and I said, ‘You’re a great nurse.’ And she said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘The fact that you care this much about your patients,’ and I said, ‘That’s a compliment to you and your patients.’”

An hour later the patient in that room died.

After the Times-News spoke with Kunz and McNeill on Thursday, Riedel said no other staff would be made available for comment Friday. Twin Falls Center, which has had three staff members but no residents contract COVID-19, according to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Feifer, would not let the Times-News talk to employees. The Times-News was unable to talk to employees at Canyons Retirement Community in time for this story.

Not enough PPE

Shortages in personal protective equipment throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have been well documented. There have been instances when state governments directly competed with each other to place the highest bid for an order of masks or other gear.

Some Magic Valley nursing home directors and owners said that it’s incredibly difficult right now to get the protective gear they need. Lynch said she ordered gowns, goggles and face shields three months ago, but they haven’t arrived.

“We’ve had to beg and borrow,” she said.

There isn’t enough personal protective equipment for long-term care facilities throughout the country. Facilities have had to do the best they can. Kunz had McNeill buy out a supply of $5 women’s dresses at Walmart. He filled up his truck with 111 of them to be used in place of personal protective gowns. Despite that, Riedel said Bridgeview has enough personal protective equipment.

“I’ve put off most of my work because I’m just trying to find what PPE I can,” Bell said. “We’re going through hundreds and thousands of maks and gowns and gloves a week, and we can’t find them.”

Bell said searching for personal protective equipment has been a nightmare. Even when he can find materials to buy — he often can’t — the prices have skyrocketed. For example, you used to be able to buy 50 disposable gowns for $25. Now they cost between $7 and $15 each.

Staff members often use multiple gowns when helping one resident with a task. Plus, they have to change their gowns whenever they interact with a different resident. Some facilities have hundreds of residents, so the cost of personal protective equipment can be astronomical. Some facilities have been priced out.

The situation with surgical masks is no better. Before COVID-19, you could buy 50 surgical masks for $3 or $4, Bell said. Now they’re selling for $1 or $2 each. And some facilities are running through 600 or 700 masks a day.

Part of the problem is that companies are selling personal protective equipment in bulk for millions of dollars. In many cases, only the biggest facilities and government entities can afford those prices.

Staying strong

McNeill said part of him feels helpless. He sees Bridgeview’s nurses doing everything they can to care for ailing residents, and he wishes desperately that he could help, do more.

He’s found a way to pitch in: Support videos addressed to Bridgeview staff.

McNeill has been asking many of his friends to send encouraging videos, and he then shares those videos with his coworkers. He has a surgeon friend who has sent one, a pastor, Magic Valley law enforcement and firefighting agencies. As of Thursday, he had nine, and he said they’re doing an incredible job of raising the staff’s spirits.

One of the videos is from McNeill’s friend Miguel Cruz, who served 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I know what you guys are going through there at Bridgeview,” Cruz says in the video. “It’s tough. We get it. We all know. We’re thinking about you guys … Keep up that fight. One foot in front of the other.”

Cruz says in the video that everyone at Bridgeview will emerge from this experience stronger. They’ll look back on the work they’re doing these days, days where they’ve had to deal with death, and they’ll be proud of all they did to try to save their residents. McNeill said hearing messages like that are helping everyone get through this. He wants to get as many videos as he can.

“I’ve gone from being proud to being scared to being anxious, to determined, all wrapped up,” McNeill said. “It’s been all of that in one moment.

“Wild horses couldn’t pull me away.”

Support videos for Bridgeview

Support videos for Bridgeview

Trump: Reopen churches

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.

The president threatened to “override” governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.

“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend,” Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn’t answer a theoretical question.

Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to reverse an economic free fall playing out months before he faces reelection.

White evangelical Christians have been among the president’s most loyal supporters, and the White House has been careful to attend to their concerns throughout the crisis.

Meanwhile, the United States says it wants the World Health Organization to start work “now” on a planned independent review of its coordinated international response to the COVID-19 outbreak, at a time the Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the agency and is threatening to cut off U.S. funding for it.

Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sent a letter to the U.N. health agency’s executive board meeting on Friday saying the United States believes the WHO can “immediately initiate” preparations such as bringing together independent health experts and setting up guidelines for the review.

“This review will ensure we have a complete and transparent understanding of the source, timeline of events, and decision-making process for the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Giroir, who is one of the board’s 34 international members. Giroir did not deliver that statement in person, but did briefly participate in the board’s first-ever “virtual” meeting.

Giroir alluded to a resolution passed Tuesday by the WHO’s assembly calling on Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to launch a “comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO-coordinated international response to the outbreak “at the earliest appropriate moment.”

Tedros, for his part, spoke to the board and pointed proudly to a long list of actions taken by WHO to respond to the outbreak — without directly alluding to the Trump administration pressure that was highlighted by Giroir.

Following Trump’s calls for reopening houses of worship, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.

Public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet away from others when possible. Some parts of the country remain under some version of remain-at-home orders.

In-person religious services have been vectors for transmission of the virus. A person who attended a Mother’s Day service at a church in Northern California that defied the governor’s closure orders later tested positive, exposing more than 180 churchgoers. And a choir practice at a church in Washington state was labeled by the CDC as an early “superspreading” event.

But Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and said he was “identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services.”

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” he added.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should be in touch with local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.

“There’s a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic,” she said.

A person familiar with the White House’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said Trump had called the news conference, which had not been on his public schedule, because he wanted to be the face of church reopenings, knowing how well it would play with his political base.

Churches around the country have filed legal challenges opposing virus closures. In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and some Lutheran leaders said they would defy his ban and resume worship services. They called the restrictions unconstitutional and unfair since restaurants, malls and bars were allowed limited reopening.

FILE - In this Sunday, March 15, 2020, file photo, former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios in Washington. Biden won Oregon’s Democratic presidential primary, outpacing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who both suspended their campaigns earlier in the year. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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Magic Valley businesses receive initial $10,000 grants from state

KIMBERLY — Ageless Senior Citizens, a senior center in Kimberly, received nearly $8,000 from the state this week.

Without it, “I’m not sure we would have been able to stay open,” secretary-treasurer Cheryl Arledge said.

A new state program for small businesses offers grants up to $10,000 for equipment, inventory, personal protective equipment, rent and utilities. Idaho has now sent out about $24 million to more than 2,000 businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Transparent Idaho.

Arledge said the cost of operating the senior center’s meal program has gone up significantly due to the pandemic, but it needs to stay open as an essential service.

“We all … feel it is very important to feed these seniors,” Arledge said. “When a senior is afraid to go into a grocery store to shop, we need to be able to feed them.”

The meal program has expanded from two to three days a week since the shutdown. And even though the dining room is now closed, the number of meals served each week has jumped from about 30 to more than 150.

“We never had those kinds of numbers in the dining room,” Arledge said.

That expansion has not been cheap, she said. The cost of food is skyrocketing and single-use to-go containers are expensive. The extra day of service also means greater staffing costs and more personal protective equipment to keep workers and patrons safe.

Arledge said she applied for the grant the first day it was available on May 11. The center received the money in its account earlier this week.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little set aside $300 million for the grant program out of the $1.25 billion the state received from Congress. Grants are available to eligible businesses on a first-come, first-serve basis until the money is gone. The deadline to apply is July 17.

“Expanding this resource to self-employed business owners should help them get back on their feet and relieve some of the financial loss brought about by this unexpected and unwelcome virus,” Little wrote in a statement.

The first wave of applications started May 11 for business with one to 19 employees. The second wave opened on Monday for businesses with one to 50 employees. Those who are self-employed can apply on May 27 for grants up to $7,500.

Businesses are eligible if they have received less than $10,000 from other federal aid programs.

Businesses with one to five workers have received 85% of the money so far.

Construction businesses have received 16% of the money, the most of any industry. The accommodation and foodservice industry is second at about 12%.

Twin Falls County has received 152 grants, the fourth most in the state. Ada County leads the state with 830 grants.