AUSTIN, Minn. — The biggest employer in the city of Austin, Minn., is still waiting on the call for when it can finally vaccinate staff members working in the processing plant for COVID-19.

Richard Carlson, vice president of quality management for Hormel, said on March 8 that very few of the approximately 1,800 employees working at the Austin processing plant had been vaccinated.

"Unless they have been able to get the vaccine through the state of Minnesota because they meet one of the other eligibility requirements," Carlson said, but he didn't give an estimate as to how many workers that may be.

Richard Carlson, vice president of quality management for Hormel (Hormel photo)
Richard Carlson, vice president of quality management for Hormel (Hormel photo)
He did, however, estimate that within the coming weeks, Hormel and its partnership with Mower County Public Health would be able to get the entire plant workforce vaccinated.

"We should be able to have a vaccine available for those 1,800 team members here in Austin," Carlson said.

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"Just being at a point where we can soon deliver the vaccine to them, and hopefully move ourselves back to something that's going to be whatever the new normal is, is great and I just can't express my appreciation enough for all those workers."

- Richard Carlson, vice president of quality management for Hormel


Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that the state would accelerate its timeline for vaccine priority groups, after Minnesota had reached a key milestone in vaccinating the state's residents 65 and older.

The accelerated plan pushes up priority groups originally slated to begin in April. Those two groups consist of people with specific underlying health conditions, and then people working in certain workforces including food processing.

In Iowa, the state's Department of Public Health announced on March 1 that it received 33,400 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as well as more doses of the other two shots to equal 100,000 shots total. IDPH sent the Johnson & Johnson doses to communities with a large workforce in food, agricultural, distribution and manufacturing sectors who have been "disproportionally affected by the virus," the health department said in a press release. Workers at Tyson Foods' plants across the state as well as employees at Iowa's JBS plants were either already vaccinated or would be vaccinated by the third week of March.

Despite Hormel's staff in Austin having to wait longer than those plant workers in Iowa, Carlson said he was "certainly not aware" of any employees voicing their impatience, or leaving voluntarily over concerns for their safety.

He said that Hormel leaders have advocated for its staff to get the vaccine as soon as possible, and although they are willing to be patient with the state's vaccine rollout, the time has come for food processing workers to get their shots.

"A couple weeks ago we were a little frustrated about the pace of the vaccine rollout in some places, and Minnesota was one of those places," Carlson said. "Just those opportunities where we can voice our opinions and advocate for our teams, we're going to do that right up through the point where we can get them vaccinated and hopefully put this pandemic behind us."

Neither Carlson nor Hormel spokesperson Rick Williamson were able to provide a total number for employees at the plant who tested positive for COVID-19. But Carlson said the company is doing its due diligence when it comes to reporting cases.

"As far as reporting, we do report to public health — that's a part of building bridges, and part of what's expected of public health in the state as they track illnesses, both on the local level and at the state level," Carlson said. "So while we may not be reporting out specific illnesses, or cases as it relates to Hormel Foods, we're certainly doing what we're told to do with state and local public health."

Overall during the pandemic, Carlson said that Hormel is extremely proud of its staff for adjusting to the times, and believes its workforce deserves more credit than it gets.

"They had to adapt to PPE and social distancing, and lots of disruptions in their day in order to keep COVID out, and really have done a phenomenal job," he said. "Just being at a point where we can soon deliver the vaccine to them, and hopefully move ourselves back to something that's going to be whatever the new normal is, is great and I just can't express my appreciation enough for all those workers."