May 13, 2020 5:30 PM

Kansas sausage making plant shuts down amid COVID-19 cases

Posted May 13, 2020 5:30 PM
Johnsonville Plant in Holton Google image
Johnsonville Plant in Holton Google image

TOPEKA Kan. (AP) — A Kansas plant that makes sausage has shut down after five employees tested positive for the coronavirus amid continued problems at meatpacking plants in the state and across the country.

The shutdown at the Johnsonville plant in Holton took effect Wednesday.

“It’s a tough decision to halt production, but we appreciate Johnsonville for doing this to help us stop the spread of COVID-19,” says Angie Reith, Jackson County Health Officer. “The Johnsonville team has implemented aggressive safety measures and did so early on to protect their workforce, and those efforts have helped immensely in identifying the virus in the facility as quickly as possible. We’ll continue our collaboration to minimize the spread of the virus.”

Johnsonville said all employees will continue to get paid, and downtime will be used to implement even more aggressive safety protocols before reopening. Some new safety protocols include placing additional barriers between workstations where social distancing is not possible.

Meanwhile, counties in southwest Kansas with plants continue to deal with outbreaks among employees. Ford, Seward and Finney counties together had more than 2,700 cases as of Monday, or 38% of the state’s total. They had the highest rates of cases per 1,000 residents in the state.

But some neighboring counties also are seeing higher-than-average rates of cases as well. Kearney County has 30 cases, for a rate of 7.61 for every 1,000 residents -- far above the state’s figure of 2.44.

Dr. Drew Miller, a family physician in Lakin, said the cases there are tied to the meatpacking industry.

“We’re seeing community spread, or household spread and community spread, from those that were initially affected in the meatpacking plants, and I guess that’s the part that concerns us more than the young, healthy workforce population,” Miller said in a Zoom interview. “They expose their parents or others living in their house that have other chronic illnesses to the virus.”

He expects to Kearny County to diverge with the state when it reaches the second phase of Kelly’s plan to reopen the economy on May 18.

“It is an eerie thought, but as everybody else talks about reopening, it still feels like we’re looking COVID-19 straight in the eyes,” he said

Johns Hopkins University has reported 184 deaths and 7,200 cases in Kansas, although the actual number is thought to be higher in part because of the initial limits in testing.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, or death.

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May 13, 2020 5:30 PM
Virus unleashes wave of fraud in US amid fear and scarcity
Counterfeit COVID-19 test kits-photo courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

WASHINGTON (AP) — A 39-year-old former investment manager in Georgia was already facing federal charges that he robbed hundreds of retirees of their savings in a Ponzi scheme when the rapid spread of COVID-19 presented an opportunity.

Christopher A. Parris started pitching himself as a broker of surgical masks amid the nationwide scramble for protective equipment in the first desperate weeks of the outbreak, federal authorities said. He was soon taking in millions of dollars.

Except there were no masks.

Law enforcement officials say Parris is part of what they are calling a wave of fraud tied to the outbreak.

Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, is leading a nationwide crackdown. It has opened over 370 cases and so far arrested 11 people, as part of “Operation Stolen Promise,” according to Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“It’s incredibly rampant and it’s growing by the day,” Albence said. “We’re just scratching the surface of this criminal activity. ”

From a fake #COVID19 test kit photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

Parris was on pretrial release for the alleged Ponzi scheme when he was arrested last month in what authorities say was an attempt to secure an order for more than $750 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs for 125 million face masks and other equipment.

“He was trying to sell something he didn’t even have,” said Jere T. Miles, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans office of Homeland Security Investigations, which worked the case with the VA Office of Inspector General. “That’s just outright, blatant fraud.”

Parris has not yet entered a plea to fraud charges and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Nationwide, investigators have turned up more than false purveyors of PPE. They have uncovered an array of counterfeit or adulterated products, from COVID-19 tests kits and treatments to masks and cleaning products.

Steve Francis, director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which is overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says authorities have tracked counterfeits flowing into the U.S. from 20 countries and for sale through thousands of websites.

“There are people popping up who have never been in the business of securing equipment on a large scale,” Francis said.

Enter Parris.

From his home outside Atlanta, he claimed to represent a company with 3M respiratory masks and other protective equipment for sale. At the time, there was a mad scramble for supplies that pitted state and local governments against each other.

As outlined in court documents and interviews, his pitch reached a company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that was trying to help government agencies acquire PPE. In late March, it contacted the VA, which was dealing with a critical shortage of protective equipment.

The VA was suspicious of the price, about 15 times what it was paying amid the shortage, and alerted its inspector general, which brought in Homeland Security. That resulted in a sting that led to Parris.

“He had no means of producing any PPE,” Albence said. “It was just a scam.”

Coronavirus test kits that were not FDA approved-photo U.S. courtesy Customs and Border patrol

But it had some takers. Federal authorities say a Parris-controlled bank account received more than $7.4 million, with most appearing to come from unidentified entities trying to buy safety gear in March and April, according to court documents. He wired some of the money to accounts overseas, including more than $1.1 million to a Swiss company’s bank that authorities say may be a shell corporation.

The U.S. government seized more than $3.2 million from his accounts.

The Ponzi scheme was unrelated to the alleged attempt to defraud the VA but “is sufficiently similar to the conduct in this case that it is relevant to his plan, intent, and modus operandi,” according to a search warrant affidavit.

In the earlier case, Parris and his partners are accused of defrauding about 1,000 people out of at least $115 million from January 2012 to June 2018. They persuaded the victims to turn over their savings for what turned out to be nonexistent investments, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Another member of the partnership, Perry Santillo, pleaded guilty to fraud in November.

As part of the alleged scheme, Parris and the others bought the businesses of investment advisers who were retiring and leveraged the trust those advisers had built up over the years to pitch the bogus investments, with relatively modest returns, to their newly acquired clients.

Florida attorney Scott Silver, who represented some investors who sought to get their money back after the SEC shut down the operation, said there was little to recover because Parris and the others spent most of it.

He wasn’t surprised that Parris had been arrested in the COVID fraud case. “He’s already facing 20 years in prison,” he said. “What’s he worried about?”

Parris, who was charged in the case in January, grew up in Rochester, New York, and worked as an insurance agent, owned a dry cleaner and got involved in local politics. He ran unsuccessfully for city council and said he was vice president of a local African American Republican committee.

“So many people that know me, you know, trust me,” Parris said in a 2015 hearing with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which later suspended his broker license.

One of Parris’ alleged victims in the Ponzi scheme, Jane Naylon, said she took guitar lessons from Parris’ father, a reverend at a local church and lost $150,000 in the fraud.

Naylon was dismayed when Parris was released on his own recognizance in the Ponzi scheme. When she learned he had been charged for PPE fraud, she said she was in shock, but also pleased.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “I hope he goes to jail for life.”

Parris is now jailed in Atlanta and is expected to be transferred to Washington to face charges in the VA case.

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