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Local Leprino plant dealing with COVID spike

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Leprino Foods Co. is working with the state to respond to a recent spike in COVID-19 numbers. The photo is from a 2016 tour of the plant. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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One of the area’s largest employers is working with the state to contain COVID-19 cases at its plant.

Leprino Foods Co. has had a recent spike in COVID-19 cases. According to the state, it has had 14 Rapid Response reports at its Omaha Road plant since Oct. 7.

A company spokesperson said that plant employees have had eight positive tests since Oct. 7.

A state Environment Department staff member said that an investigation has been initiated.

“The New Mexico Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau initiated an investigation based on concerns regarding the number of recent positive cases among employees at the facility and to ensure Leprino is following COVID-safe practices, including the quarantine of close contacts. An inspection is ongoing, and the facility was not required to close,” said T. Justin Garoutte, a special assistant to the New Mexico Secretary of Environment James Kenney.

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Leprino, which employs 600 or more people in Roswell, is one of 291 employers in the state and 21 in Roswell on a preliminary Rapid Response watchlist.

That list was posted Tuesday after the state announced new provisions of the public health order effective Friday meant to curb the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

Among the four new rules is one that will require the two-week closure of food and drink establishments, retailers, lodging businesses and “close contact” companies if they have four or more Rapid Response reports within two weeks.

Rapid Responses are when employers make the required reports of COVID-positive tests to the state Health and Safety Bureau after an employee tests positive for the coronavirus. “Close contact” companies, as defined by the state public health order, include such businesses as gyms and fitness centers, salons and barbershops, massage and tattoo parlors, and bowling alleys.

In addition to employing a lot of people from the area, Leprino also plays a crucial part in the local economy. It works with a number of trucking companies that serve the plant and vendors and it purchases a large volume of milk, about 6 million gallons a day, much of it from local dairies.

“The safety and health of our 600+ employees is one of our highest priorities,” said Communications Director Kimberly DeVigil. “As an essential business, we are committed to ensuring that vital and nutritious dairy food continues to be manufactured for families around the world.”

DeVigil said that the corporation and plant have worked since March to implement safety precautions, and she added that the company has been in regular contact with the New Mexico Department of Health.

“Chaves County has some of the highest case rates per 100,000 in New Mexico and is an area at risk for community spread,” DeVigil said. “Because of this risk, we have worked early and often with the local Department of Public Health to ensure we have the appropriate protocols and resources that can detect possible illness, manage risks and help keep our employees safe and healthy.”

DeVigil provided a list of 20 safety measures that have been implemented and that fall into three categories: minimizing risk, sanitation and social distancing.

The precautions include temperature checks of all people as they enter the plant each day as well as additional daily health questionnaires for employees; regular audits to ensure policies are followed; daily sanitation of the plant, with special attention to high-use areas; allowing remote work when possible; providing nose and mouth coverings and other personal protective equipment to employees; and adjusted attendance requirements, as well as supplemental pay, to encourage those who report feeling sick to stay home.

Leprino Foods Co. is a global, privately held corporation with about $3.5 billion in sales a year. It is one of the world’s largest producers of mozzarella cheese and dairy by-products.

In April, the company closed its Fort Morgan, Colorado, plant for about a week to disinfect the facility after about 20% of its 350 employees tested positive for COVID-19. That plant is about 80 miles from the corporation’s Denver headquarters.

Leprino also has seven other U.S. manufacturing plants besides the ones in Roswell and Fort Morgan. They are in California, Michigan, New York and Greeley, Colorado.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.