DUMAS — The funeral cortege for Police Chief Marvin Trejo departed Morrison Memorial Chapel in fog and drizzle Friday. But by the time it reached Memory Gardens Cemetery 55 miles south in Amarillo, the day had blossomed into such a glorious spring offering that few of the many mourners remained in their cars. Instead, they gathered around the graveside service and, some masked but more not, lingered in a long reception line to offer Trejo’s family hugs, squeezes and intimate words of solace.


Trejo, 58, who had been a member of the Dumas department for a quarter century and its chief for a year, died of COVID-19 the previous Sunday. He was the ninth casualty of the pandemic in Moore County, an agricultural patch of the Texas Panhandle with fewer than 21,000 inhabitants but by far the highest infection rate in the state of Texas and also, not incidentally, one of its largest meatpacking plants, which in one state after another have proven to be the hottest of hot spots.


Trejo’s death was a tough, deeply felt loss.


“Everybody’s close in this community,” said Rowdy Rhoades, the Moore County judge and former Dumas mayor, who swore Trejo in as chief last year. “Everybody knows everybody.’


The JBS beef plant is 13 miles north of Dumas in the town of Cactus, home to 3,200 people, about the same number of people, mostly immigrants and refugees speaking a score or more different languages, who work in a factory that provides beef to 10 million people a day. Presidential Donald Trump, in an April 28 executive order, declared such beef, chicken and pork processing plants too essential to the nation’s food supply to be permitted to close.


No communities in America are being more sorely tested by a pandemic with no certain end or outcome than those at once sustained and threatened by a slaughterhouse in their midst.


Even as Father Gabriel Garcia offered words of spiritual comfort for Trejo’s grieving friends and loved ones, Amarillo Public Health Director Cassie Stoughton was preparing to post some startling statistics for Potter and Randall, the two counties that Amarillo straddles.


Potter had recorded 618 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, and Randall 116, for a total of 734, numbers that accounted for more than 40% of the 1,802 new cases notched statewide Saturday. It was the biggest one-day spike since the coronavirus first arrived in Texas.


But this had little to do with the JBS plant. Moore County only added four new cases Saturday.


Rather it was an artifact of a concerted effort by the Texas National Guard to test all 3,600 workers at the Tyson beef plant on the outskirts of Amarillo, part of a “surge response team” dispatched to the Panhandle by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 4 to implement, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a containment plan for the Amarillo outbreak.


This week, the plan is to train the same comprehensive testing on the JBS workers in Cactus, auguring another wave of positive test results to come.


Feed a nation while protecting workers


In the meantime, the governor’s office asserted Saturday afternoon. without naming names, that, “Plants with widespread outbreaks have temporarily shut down for thorough disinfection.”


That was not entirely accurate.


Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said via email Saturday evening that the Amarillo “plant operates some weekends as needed. It did not operate this weekend and is undergoing additional sanitation and cleaning. We plan to operate on Monday.”


Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for JBS, said by email, “There are no plans to shut down the Cactus facility at this time. The plant is currently open and operational.”


Shane Miller, senior vice president and general manager of beef enterprise for Tyson Fresh Meats, told the American-Statesman on Friday that the Amarillo plant, which was already operating at less than half-speed because of a workforce depleted by infection and nervous no-shows, might of necessity go to a single shift or even temporarily shut down as it instructs every employee who tested positive to quarantine for two weeks and go on short-term disability at 90% of their pay, higher than usual, and without the usual one-week waiting period..


“Let’s say we get the numbers back Monday and find out, well, we don’t have enough to run the plant two shifts,” Miller said. “Then we’ll assess what’s the safest way to operate. Maybe it’s taking the plant totally down or maybe it’s taking the plant down to one shift.”


“These are difficult times,” Miller said. “You’re getting tugged in multiple directions. You’re getting tugged to feed the nation and do everything we can to remain operational.”


Asked about the possibility of temporarily closing the Cactus plant, Tim Schellpeper, the president of JBS’s beef business. replied, “Closing a plant is always an option, I suppose.”


But, he continued, “When I think about that I think about four different things: Our team members and all of us have had a lot of disruption in our lives because of COVID-19 and this would be another disruption for our employees. I think about the local community. We are a large employer in that area, and certainly that would have some type of impact on the community. I think about the cattle feeders and the ranchers. The vast majority of the cattle there are from Texas feed yards. And then I think about the consumers, those 10 million people that are depending on that facility for food every day.”


After early safety fears swelled the number of no-shows, Schellpeper said unplanned absenteeism has settled into the mid-teens.


JBS told another 10 percent of the workforce — folks 60 and older and those with some medical conditions — to stay home with full pay and benefits.


Both companies have heightened sanitation and disinfection efforts, imposed temperature and health checks, installed plastic dividers, increased social distancing, slowed line speed and provided face masks and face shields.


On a visit Thursday to the Cactus plant, at which he talked to state officials about the upcoming testing, Schellpeper also sat down with small groups of employees.


“They’ve been impressed with how much we’ve done,” he said. “Frankly what I hear is that they feel safe inside our facility.”


“It’s probably safer in these plants than it is in the communities,” said Tyson’s Miller.


’We’re all on the same side’


Workers at the Cactus plant are represented by Local 540 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Workers at Tyson’s Amarillo facility are represented by Teamsters Union Local 577.


“Normally when you sit down with companies at the bargaining table, there are different sides,” said Johnny Rodriguez, Local 540’s president. “In this case, I think we’re all on the same side. This is life and death.“


The companies have raised pay and provided bonuses.


Kwey Baw has been working as a maintenance mechanic at Tyson for 10 years. His wife, Ehdah, has worked the processing line for a year. She works the A shift and he works the B shift, so they can take care of their three children, ages 4, 7 and 10, in their comfortable home in a pleasant Amarillo neighborhood. The Baws are Karen, an indigenous people from the Thai-Burma border region. They are refugees. They met each other in Amarillo.


“They called me and told me, `You test positive. You don’t have to to work for 14 days,” Ehdah Baw recalled. “Stay home, safe.”


The Baws, each of whom also works as union stewards at the plant, wore matching “My work feeds the nation” T-shirts.


Brian Ahearn, president and business manager of the Teamsters local, said his mantra has been, “test, test, test, that’s what the scientists say,” not just at Tyson but everywhere, symptomatic or not.


Meanwhile, Ahearn notes that, “Trump said, `It’s going to be gone in June,” and “to hear (Abbott) talking, everything’s fine.”


“People are not taking it seriously and that’s a problem,” Ahearn said.


Ahearn was speaking the morning after Abbott sounded an upbeat note in an interview Tuesday with KFDA in Amarillo.


“Because we are meeting with success in the Panhandle area in confronting and containing COVID-19 coming from the processing facilities, and because we are addressing nursing homes in the Panhandle region, we think the spread of the coronavirus will largely be contained,” Abbott said.


Abbott said the plan was to, “basically quarantine or isolate those who test positive to make sure they stop spreading it to others, then implement other measures in the community such as the transportation of these workers on these buses to the meat processing facilities, and to try to prevent them from going into places like Walmart and exposing others to the exposure of COVID-19.”


JBS had already increased its bus fleet transporting workers from a Walmart parking lot in Amarillo to the Cactus plant, to allow every-other-row seating and required masks and temperature checks.


On Saturday, the governor’s office said that individuals with a positive test who cannot otherwise isolate in Amarillo would be offered hotel rooms, that the state would maintain an alternate care site for patients who do not require hospitalization and that he was sending Amarillo an additional allotment of Remdesivir, a drug with some potential for treating COVID-19.


“We’re at least I think finally making some progress, but it’s been a long time coming,” state Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, told the Statesman last week. “You know the situation has just kind of gotten worse and worse.”


He said the bulk of the region’s cases can be traced to the plants.


"We haven’t seen the big increases in the general population yet, because if you did, you could see a real explosion here,“ Smithee said. “And that’s what we’re all kind of watching real closely, to see whether this gets out of the plants.”


it is critical “to identify whether there is community spread going on beyond the workers at the plants,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, one of three outside medical advisers to the governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas. “If there are early signs of that, the earlier you find it the better, and that’s when you want to be very careful about further reopening, and maybe pulling back. This is where more intensive testing and contract tracing can really help.”


On Saturday, Abbott reported that the Amarillo region had ample hospital care capacity — 516 available hospital beds, 236 available surge beds, 110 available ventilators.


Moore County Hospital in Dumas hasn’t had a COVID-19 patient since May 8. Jeff Turner, the CEO for the Moore County Hospital District, said that on April 13, the 24-bed hospital intubated two patients, put a third on a BiPAP machine and recommended a ventilator for a fourth patient, whose family declined. The patient died.


Turner ordered and received three additional ventilators, but he never needed them.


“The interesting thing is that as of late, it just seems like while we’re still getting positive cases, you’ve got a certain population of people that are in that 10- to 14-day period of time that can get better or are getting worse, and you’re not seeing a whole lot of people getting worse,” Turner said.


“I'm not saying we're done with COVID, I have no earthly idea. This thing could flare back up again,” he said.


Turner said the hospital district and the broader Moore County medical community, alert early to the likely perils of a meat plant in a pandemic, have worked in concert with JBS to keep the plant open.


“We’ve never been overrun, and a major employer and a major food-producing source has remained open during the entire process, and not every community can say that,” he said. “I actually think we’ve done a really good job of achieving certain goals and if one of those goals is to continue putting beef on the tables of Americans, then we’ve been able to do that.”


“I think that's a huge win for our community,” he said.


Rhoades thinks JBS has been a scapegoated by people looking for someone to blame.


“If we just look at facts only, we know it came from China That’s what they’re telling us,’” Rhoades said. “And we know our first person that got it was a retired Valero employee. He was with the Peace Corps in Africa and he came back through New York, an 81-year-old man.“


He’s fine now.


Rhoades said Chief Trulo had no connection with the JBS plant.


“The transmission isn’t happening at JBS; it’s happening in our community, and our hottest spot — I’m not a surgeon or a rocket scientist — our Walmart’s the hottest spot. Everybody shops at Walmart,” Rhoades said. “You grab the bananas, you look at them, you go, `I don’t need that many, I’ll break them in half.” You touch things. we touch everything.“


Rhoades welcomes more testing. Early antibody testing prepared them for what was coming even if it elevated the numbers that have colored Moore County bright red on infection maps. Rhoades said some other rural judges in counties with five or fewer active coronavirus cases are afraid of testing because it would risk the status they hold under Abbott’s order entitling them to open at an accelerated pace.


Rhoades also has some cow country chauvinism about the vigor of Panhandle immune systems and, fittingly, a belief that ultimately, the answer lies in herd immunity.


“This is going to go through our whole community, everybody’s gonna get it,” Rhoades said. “One way or the other, everybody’s gonna get it.”


Staff writer Nicole Cobler contributed to this story.