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Chautauqua County officials discuss handling of COVID cluster at Dunkirk plant

A specific state testing site on Brigham Road was set up in response to the Fieldbrook Foods outbreak, which first popped up with a small trickle of cases last week.

DUNKIRK, N.Y. — Chautauqua County officials have opened up with more details about their COVID cluster problem involving a local food processing plant and how they're trying to cope with an outbreak involving its large workforce.

That includes new state testing. 

The specific state testing site on Brigham Road in Dunkirk was set up in response to the Fieldbrook Foods outbreak, which first popped up with a small trickle of cases early last week.

Then county officials realized the cluster at the Dunkirk food processing plant, which produces ice cream, was getting worse, so they took action with Fieldbrook management cooperation and numerous assisting local agencies.

Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel said, "On Tuesday we ran what I am told was one of the largest and most successful mass testing clinics in the state outside of New York City."

County Health Director Christine Schuyler then provided this update.

"In total, to this date, with this outbreak, there have been 49 employees who tested positive and an additional 14 close contact of those employees who tested positive," she said.

While simple community spread is a factor, another issue was turned up by the county through contract tracing and follow-up.

"Through our investigative efforts, I will also reveal we have learned that there were at least two, if not three, large social gatherings in the Dunkirk community," Schuyler said.

The county explained Friday why it did not force a shutdown of the ice cream production facility such as we saw in past  months with some meatpacking plants around the country.

Part of the rationale is the constant state monitoring of food production. And then there is the overnight third shift cleaning schedule. Schuyler pointed out "it did not seem to make any sense to close it down, to have them do a deep clean, since they're doing that every 24 hours."

During the briefing for reporters there was also push-back against criticism regarding the timing of their response and the public notification process.

Wendel said "concerns may have been it took some time ... it took time to get this coordinated. We wanted to make sure we did get it right. We want make sure we prevented hysteria and we prevented people from being concerned and really overboard like, what are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? We will let you know."

Schuyler added her appreciation of her health department staff and even got a bit emotional.

"Every person in this community must take personal responsibility. What you do on your down time on your off hours is up to you. But please remember that the consequences that spill over to our community," Schuyler said.

"They also spill over to all of us who are working 24/7 to try to prevent the spread of this disease. I am very proud of my staff."

She summed it up this way: "Stay away from being too close in crowds. Wash your hands, wear masks, it's not rocket science. We don't want to see our businesses shut down, we don't want our schools not to be able to reopen.

"But that means everybody has got to be smart. Use some common sense."


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