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Coronavirus deaths among LA County food processing workers bring dire plea from health officials

Colleen Shalby, Leila Miller and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- With coronavirus deaths now surpassing 9,000 across California, health officials in Los Angeles County are investigating a deadly outbreak at a food processing plant in Commerce and issued another urgent plea for businesses and employees to report COVID-19 cases.

The county is examining the deaths of two employees at Mission Foods Corp. in Commerce.

Mission Foods, a leading distributor of tortillas, chips and salsas sold in grocery stores, was one of three food processing businesses that the county shut down Sunday; as of Thursday, 49 employees have tested positive. All three businesses have since reopened.

L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said Thursday that the two Mission employees were believed to have had COVID-19 at the time of their deaths.

The latest surge in COVID-19 that hit California more than a month ago as the economy reopened has been tied in part to low-wage employees becoming ill at work and then spreading the virus in their communities. Essential workers -- many of them Latino -- have been hit hard both in urban areas such as Los Angeles and agricultural hamlets in the Central Valley.

The family of Jose Roberto Alvarez, who oversaw maintenance at Mission Foods and died July 20 after contracting the coronavirus, has criticized the company for failing to disclose to its workers the number of employees who had tested positive.

 

Alisha Alvarez, the daughter of the 67-year-old deceased worker, said that though her father was notified in May about a positive case, the company did not disclose in the weeks that followed that more workers had gotten sick.

"He didn't necessarily express too much concern because he didn't know what was going on behind the scenes and how many cases there were," she said. "He would say 'I'm hearing rumblings that so and so has it,' but nothing official was ever said to him."

Messages left with Mission Foods' facility in Commerce and its corporate parent were not returned.

During a media briefing Thursday afternoon, Davis stressed the need for businesses to comply with the county's health orders. That includes reporting any outbreak of three or more cases and alerting all workers who may have been exposed to a person with a known case, he said.

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