The Merced County Health Department ordered the Foster Farms Livingston Facility to shut down over the largest and most severe COVID-19 outbreak in Merced County, according to a statement released on Thursday by the health department.

The shutdown order came Wednesday.

However, late Thursday, Mike North, Merced County’s spokesperson, said county officials issued a 48-hour stay to the shutdown order to “help facilitate logistics associated with any necessary closure.” North said the enforcement stay followed a “phone call” with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary for food safety.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Foster Farms would respond to the shutdown order. A man who answered the phone at the Livingston plant on Thursday afternoon said they had no comment and hung up.

Vehicles, including trucks with Foster Farms’ logos, were seen entering and exiting the Livingston facility after 6 p.m. Thursday, and the facility’s gates were open.

The outbreak at the Livingston Facility accounts for 18% of COVID-19 deaths in the county under age 65, and 4 out of 10 coronavirus deaths in Livingston.

In a statement Thursday, officials described the Foster Farms outbreaks as the “most severe and long lasting” in Merced County.

At least 358 employees have tested positive, and eight employees have died due to the coronavirus, according to a letter obtained from the Merced County Health Department. The true spread, however, remains unknown, according to the statement.

“Foster Farms’ poultry operation in Livingston, California, has experienced an alarming spread of COVID-19 among its workers. Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in the written statement.

The California Department of Public Health also issued a statement to support the county’s action.

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“I hope this letter helps Foster Farms to understand that it has a legal obligation to comply with public health orders and guidance, as well as an obligation to its workers and to the people of Merced County and surrounding counties and that these obligations compel Foster Farms to immediately comply with the order issued yesterday by the County,” Acting State Health Officer Erica Pan wrote on Aug. 27.

The COVID-19 fatality rate at Foster Farms is 2.2%, nearly twice the rate of the rest of the county, according to a letter from the Merced County Health Department.

“Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant.”

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The outbreak at the Livingston Facility accounts for 18% of COVID-19 deaths in the county under age 65, 7% of total county deaths, and 4 out of 10 coronavirus deaths in Livingston, the health department said.

The multi-billion dollar company employs about 12,000 people in turkey processing in Turlock and at chicken plants in Livingston, Fresno, Porterville, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana, and Alabama. About 3,750 people work at the Livingston facility, one of the world’s largest chicken plants.

In their letter, the state health department said the Livingston plant outbreak was of particular concern because “other Foster Farms facilities in multiple counties also are experiencing outbreaks.”

The letter did not provide any details of the other plant outbreaks.

Foster Farms ignored COVID-19 guidance

In the letter, health department officials say they attempted to curb the Livingston outbreak several times to no avail.

On June 29, before any coronavirus-related deaths tied to the plant were reported, county health officials walked through the Foster Farms facility and provided recommendations to control the outbreak, the letter says. Those included significant changes to employee break spaces and widespread employee testing. According to the statement, the company ignored most of the guidance.

In late July, the facility had tested less than 10% of the employees in the department hardest hit by the virus — fewer than 100 employees total. Over a quarter of those employees tested positive. But Foster Farms took another three weeks before testing more department employees. Three deaths are linked to that department alone, the letter states.

CalOSHA visited the Livingston facility alongside the county health department on Aug. 3 and noticed the county’s initial recommendations had not been adopted. According to the letter, the county reissued testing directives on Aug. 5 and Aug. 11 that went unmet.

As a result, the State Attorney General’s Office, the California Department of Public Health and the county health department “worked with Foster Farms to limit the impact of the closure and could not reach agreement,” according to the statement.

“The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control. Our hearts are with the eight families who have lost a loved one,” said Merced County Public Health Office Dr. Salvador Sandoval in the statement.

The Sun-Star’s Andrew Kuhn contributed to this report.

Manuela Tobias is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Manuela is a reporter at The Fresno Bee covering income inequality and economic survival for the California Divide. She is a former staff writer for PolitiFact, where she covered politics, health care...