SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota has opened a COVID-19 testing center for all Smithfield Foods workers and family members, even if they haven't shown signs of the illness due to an outbreak at the pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, state officials said Monday, May 4.

The state will pay for the "mass testing event" at the center, set up by the state National Guard in the parking lot of a local high school and conducted by Avera Health, Gov. Kristi Noem said Monday. The move comes as Smithfield Foods starts opening up its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls this week.

The plant has been closed since April 15 due to the coronavirus outbreak among its employees there, with now 1,098 cases and two deaths linked to the plant.

Noem said some workers went back to work Monday, and the plant would spool up to full-scale work in 5-6 days, Noem said she was told on a weekend call with the company, the Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"This event is optional for Smithfield employees and is not a requirement for them them to return back to work, but we do encourage every single one of them to participate," she said.

It's the first time the state has authorized COVID-19 testing of a group of people who haven't shown symptoms. When Forum News Service visited the testing site at Washington High School, more than 100 cars were lined up for testing. A worker said there were even more people in line to get tested Monday morning, with a line of cars extended down the block to a nearby stoplight.

The move comes as South Dakota's known cases of coronavirus climbed to nearly 2,700, the state Department of Health reported Monday. State public health officials reported testing had found another 37 cases of the coronavirus, raising the state total to 2,668. Of those, 817 are active cases. Sixty nine South Dakotans are hospitalized with COVID-19, out of 211 ever hospitalized.

Beef plant, nursing home outbreaks worsen

An outbreak at the DemKota Ranch Beef plant in Aberdeen continues to worsen. There are now 41 plant workers diagnosed with the illness, said Dr. Josh Clayton, state epidemiologist. Brown County, where Aberdeen is the county seat, added six new cases Monday for a total of 65.

The known fatalities from COVID-19 in the state remained at 21, after rising sharply in recent days due to deaths from an outbreak at the Good Samaritan Society senior care facility in Sioux Falls. There are approximately 90 known cases at the nursing home, including residents and staff, Clayton said.

Sioux Falls continues to be the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the state, home to 87% of the state's diagnosed individuals. Of the newly reported cases Monday, 29 were in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties, which contain Sioux Falls. The Sioux Falls City Council will meet Thursday, May 7, and consider relaxing rules on local businesses that have largely shut down in-person dining and other commercial activity in the city.

State officials said Monday there are no new known cases linked to the plant, but the mass testing even is likely to find more people who have caught the illness.

"Any time you're testing more people, there's a likelihood that you're going to find additional cases that were either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic," Clayton said. "This testing event also does include individuals who might be currently experiencing symptoms."

State officials last week loosened guidelines for who should be tested for COVID-19. State, clinical and private labs have processed 18,713 coronavirus tests as of Monday, including 296 newly reported tests.

Noem said recent reporting shows the state is down $18.1 million in general fund revenue from March, when the first COVID-19 cases were reported, she said the brunt of the pandemic's damage on the state economy will be evident when April revenue is tallied in early June.

"We do see the reflective big hit in hotels, restaurants and in clothing stores," she said, although she added those losses were somewhat offset by higher spending at grocery and hardware stores.

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