RHEA COUNTY, Tenn. — We're now learning new details about the farm that's behind a massive coronavirus outbreak in Rhea County.
Henderson Farm in Evensville has been the center of a COVID-19 outbreak, causing the county's cases to jump from 13 to almost 200, but the executive officer of Southern Valley - a partner of the farm - tells us the infection has been contained.
John Schwalls has worked with Southern Valley in various roles since 1994. Today, he told us that 100 percent of the workforce at Henderson Farm has contracted COVID-19.
Schwalls says that only three employees - less than 1% of the workforce - have shown symptoms, in the nearly 200 employees that have the virus.
This began on March 28th when workers from Mexico came to Henderson Farm to work and live there in what Schwalls describes as “college dorm room, bunk bed like” area. Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the farm on May 11th, Schwalls says every employee was tested by the Rhea County Health Department when they came to the farm. Even though ultimately only three people were symptomatic with a cold-like illness, every single employee tested positive for the virus.
Since this happened, Schwalls says no employee has left the Henderson Farm area, and that supplies have been brought to those that reside there. The company’s executive officer says that there’s been a big misconception from Rhea County residents that Hispanic people in the community are contagious, when in fact none of those workers have been in local stores or restaurants.
When we asked Schwalls if those people could freely leave the farm he says, “this isn’t a concentration camp, people can come and go.” But he says that although they have the ability to leave, nobody has because of their own concerns and worry.
Schwalls tells us that all the employees are still working, even with the virus. "I can't make anyone not work or work," he said.
He says that those three people who did show symptoms were not allowed to work, however, and were isolated from the others.
We reached out to the Tennessee Department of Health, and officials there tell us they are monitoring the situation, and have someone with the department specifically designated to monitor symptoms and cases as they develop at the farm.
As of May 26, the state health department reports 197 cases of coronavirus in Rhea County.
On Monday, Henderson Farms released the following statement to us:
"After a worker tested positive for COVID-19 and out of an abundance of caution, we requested that the Rhea County Health Department test all employees at Henderson Farms in Evensville, TN. When the results came back, we learned our workers at this location tested positive for COVID-19. At this stage, we feel blessed that our workers are asymptomatic and the situation remains contained. Yet as a precautionary measure and in line with the latest public health guidelines, these workers continue to remain in isolation at the farm where they live and work. Nothing is more important to us than the health of our workers and community at large. We take this very seriously and are monitoring the situation closely in partnership with Rhea County Health Department, taking all precautionary measures to continue to protect our workers and our community."
This is a developing story.