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Schuyler: No Need To Close Plant Tied To Outbreak

The Fireman's Grounds on Brigham Road, Dunkirk is the site of the Western New York COVID-19 testing site. The testing is done in the facility. Photo by Jo Ward

MAYVILLE — Chautauqua County’s public health director said she feels there is no reason a Dunkirk ice cream manufacturing facility should close following a COVID outbreak during a Friday morning press conference in Mayville — one day after 24 of the county’s 37 new coronavirus cases were found to be related to the plant.

Christine Schuyler noted that Fieldbrook Foods Inc. has three shifts working, with the third shift largely used to clean the plant. As a result, she said following collaboration with the regional office of the state Health Department there was “no reason to close down in relation to the COVID outbreak.”

“Every 24 hours, they do a deep clean,” she said. “It did not seem to make any sense to close them down to have them do a deep clean since they’re doing that every 24 hours.”

Fieldbrook also has standard protocols and guidelines in place where employees are screened before they come into work.

“Any employee who screens positive for any symptoms of COVID-19 is immediately sent home and is sent to a local health care provider for COVID-19 testing,” she said. “In addition to our mass testing clinic on Tuesday, several employees at Fieldbrook Foods have been tested at other health care providers. That is really where we were able to determine positive cases and got the heads up on this outbreak brewing from the screening protocols at Fieldbrook Foods.”

County Executive PJ Wendel and Public Health Director Christine Schuyler address media members on Friday morning after 24 of the county’s 37 new COVID-19 cases were found to be in relation to an outbreak at Fieldbrook Foods, Inc. in Dunkirk. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

That mass testing at the plant took place on Tuesday in collaboration with multiple agencies. County Executive PJ Wendel noted it was the “most successful” mass testing in the state outside New York City.

Plans for the testing clinic came about after the county discovered that nine workers at Fieldbrook had tested positive “as we broke for business last Friday,” and was first reported by the OBSERVER. The county responded with a written statement on Sunday to that report, but did not identify Fieldbrook Foods as the location until after Gov. Andrew Cuomo revealed during a televised press conference on Monday morning that a “food processing plant in northern Chautauqua County,” had seen an outbreak.

Wendel claims that delay in notifying the public was due to significant planning in a short period of time.

“There are a lot of things you need to line up before you roll this out so that you can roll this out effectively,” Wendel said. “Concerns were that it took some time. It did take some time to get this coordinated, we wanted to make sure we did it right. We wanted to make sure we prevented hysteria, we prevented people from being concerned and really overboard in, ‘What are we going to do now?’ We will let you know. That’s what happened with our employees.”

To date, Schuyler said 49 employees at Fieldbrook have tested positive for COVID-19 in addition to 14 people who have been in close contact with employees. She estimates that 65% of Fieldbrook employees have been tested, about 393 workers, with 24 coming back positive following Tuesday’s testing.

“I’m very hopeful that we’re over the hump with Fieldbrook Foods. That doesn’t mean I think we’re over the hump with COVID — with colleges and schools reopening, we are going to see cases. That’s the way this is, but as a community, we need to be able to manage that.”

“I’m very proud of my staff,” Schuyler said at one point through tears. After regaining composure, she continued.

“These have been stressful times,” she said. “It gets to be very emotional because I think there are some people out there who do not realize that public health workers are front-line workers and they are working very diligently to stop the spread of disease in this community and I am so grateful for all of the partners that we have who work collaboratively with us.”

Both officials did say that the plant continuing operation should not pose a threat to the general community at large.

“The plant is not open to the public, it is not open to the community,” Schuyler said. “It is only open to people who work there and everyone who starts their shift is screened and sent home if they are having any symptoms.”

“If there was more of a threat, more actions would be taken,” Wendel said, noting that the state at one point had been considering a recommendation that the plant close temporarily.

“The state was looking at a closure and as we went through all of the information and talked about the processes and what’s done and what’s screened and what’s sanitized and what’s deep cleaned, the determination was that they’re not going to close and the operation will continue as they are right now.”

“They were looking at recommending a closure,” Schuyler added. “Locally, we’re the only ones who can make that order.”

The public health director additionally noted that there were two to three large gatherings in Dunkirk in the recent week. “Every person in this community must take personal responsibility,” Schuyler said.

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