BERLIN (AP) — Regional officials in western Germany said Wednesday that the number of new COVID-19 cases linked to a large meatpacking plant has risen to 657, a significant regional spike for a country that has recorded nationwide infections in the low hundreds lately.
Health officials in Guetersloh said they have received a total of 983 test results from workers at the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck. Of those, 326 tests were negative.
Since the start of the outbreak, Germany has recorded 188,474 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 8,844 deaths. The infection rate declined sharply after authorities imposed nationwide social distancing rules in March and the daily case increase had averaged between 300-400 in June.
News of the outbreak in Guetersloh came as Chancellor Angela Merkel was meeting with Germany’s 16 state governors to discuss progress in tackling the pandemic.
“We are far away from an exponential increase,” Merkel told reporters after the meeting, insisting that the country would continue to try to relax restrictions while containing any local outbreaks.
“That’s why I very much welcome that, as today in the county of Guetersloh for example, when there is such an accumulation of infections then measures are immediately taken, for example the closure of schools and such-like,” she said.
“We see from these outbreaks that the virus isn’t gone,” she added.
Company officials at Toennies said the outbreak at the slaughterhouse may have been linked to workers taking the opportunity to visit their families in eastern European countries as border controls were relaxed.
Officials ordered the closure of the slaughterhouse, as well as isolation and tests for everyone else who had worked at the Toennies site — putting about 7,000 people under quarantine.
The infections pushed the county above the threshold of 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over a week at which local authorities in Germany have to consider new restrictions. Officials decided to close schools and child care centers across the county from Thursday until the summer vacation starts near the end of the month, but chose to avoid a wider-ranging lockdown.
There have been several outbreaks at German slaughterhouses in recent weeks, prompting the government to impose stricter safety rules for the industry and ban the practice of using sub-contractors.
The outbreak in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, where Toennies operates one of Germany’s biggest slaughterhouses, could affect the meat supply in Germany. Sven-Georg Adenauer, head of the regional administration, said a fifth of Germany’s meat products could be unavailable while the plant is shut, the dpa news agency reported.
Gereon Schulze Althoff, the Toennies official in charge of the company’s pandemic response, said that the company had been “fighting like lions since February … to keep the virus out of the operation.”
Schulze Althoff said he had no conclusive explanation for why the infections had occurred now. But he noted that many foreign workers had wanted to go and see their families as European borders started to reopen, meaning that “we were exposed to new risks.”
“We were aware of that, but we … carried out extra testing of people returning from holidays and so on,” he added. “But we didn’t succeed in keeping out these sources or this source (of infection) — we don’t know which exactly.”
He said the company has a lot of workers from eastern European countries, and many went home over recent long weekends. He said cooled rooms may also have facilitated the virus spreading.
Germany started loosening its coronavirus restrictions in late April and has largely kept infection rates low, though local outbreaks linked to slaughterhouses, church services and a restaurant among other places have caused some concern.
This week, the German government launched its coronavirus tracing app, designed to help people learn if they’ve been in close proximity to someone who later tests positive.
Officials said the app was downloaded more than 6 million times in the first 24 hours.
Merkel declined to say whether she was using the new app, saying only that she was “willing” to do so.
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