Coronavirus cases tied to giant South Dakota pork-processing plant surpass 500

The Smithfield plant employs about 3,700 people

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There have been 518 employees at a Smithfield Foods processing plant in South Dakota and 126 of their close contacts who have contracted coronavirus, state health officials said at a press conference on Wednesday.

That's up from the 438 employees and 107 of their contacts recorded as of Tuesday evening. The plant, which employs about 3,700 people in the state's largest city, has become a hot spot for infections. It makes up roughly half of South Dakota's total case count and is comparable in size to the nearly 600-person outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

MEAT SHORTAGE COMING IF CORONAVIRUS CLOSES PROCESSING PLANTS: SMITHFIELD FOODS CEO

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem called for the temporary closure of the plant this weekend, and Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan warned of a possible meat shortage after complying.

"We have to be able to process those pigs in the plants," Sullivan said on "Mornings with Maria" on Wednesday. "When the plants don't operate, we don't even have the meat to sell."

In this April 9, 2020 file photo employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

Noem has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order like many other governors have, but she pointed out that the Smithfield plant is an essential business that would have stayed open despite such an order.

"Let's be perfectly clear: a shelter-in-place order would NOT have prevented Smithfield from happening," Noem wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. "They are a critical infrastructure business. They are part of the nation's food supply chain and contribute to South Dakota's role feeding the country and the world."

The Sioux Falls facility is one of the largest pork processing plants in the United States, Smithfield said. It supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day.

Smithfield announced a three-day closure last week so it could sanitize the plant and install physical barriers to enhance social distancing. But on Sunday, it announced the plant's indefinite closure.

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Other meat processing plants have also closed temporarily because of outbreaks of the coronavirus, including a Tyson Foods facility in Columbus Junction, Iowa, where nearly 200 employees tested positive. The American Association of Meat Processors executive director Chris Young spoke about the importance of social distancing at such plants in a statement to FOX Business.

"There is a concern that more companies could end up in the same situation as Smithfield," Young said. "Many companies are screening employees and others who enter their plants on a daily basis, as well as trying to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing when they can."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.