Vaccinations Arrive for JBS Employees, But It’s Cold Comfort For One Worker Still Suffering From The Virus

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
After contracting COVID-19, Alfredo Hernandez had to leave his job at the JBS meat processing plant in Greeley. He believes he was infected at work, and has struggled financially. An oxygen supply is his constant companion now. Friday, March 5, 2021.

Updated 1 p.m., March 9

One year after Alfredo Hernandez, 55, a janitor at the Greeley JBS meatpacking plant, contracted COVID-19, he and his wife, Rosario, 59, were vaccinated. 

“I felt happy,” Hernandez said in Spanish. “I felt some hope for this illness and for some relief.” 

He’s been on an oxygen tank since he got sick with the virus last March. He spent nine days in the hospital and then was able to go home. But he has lasting symptoms: shortness of breath, trouble sleeping and he feels like there are mosquitos biting his skin at night. 

Hernandez and his wife went to a local clinic instead of the JBS plant where health care workers vaccinated 2,545 plant employees in one day. He didn’t want to go back to the plant that he hasn’t seen in nearly a year. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Alfredo Hernandez and his wife Rosario talk about their struggles at their Greeley home as their 2-year-old great grandson Elias Diaz naps on her shoulder, Friday, March 5, 2021.

“Because over there they were going to do the vaccination indoors and there was going to be a lot of people in there,” Hernandez said. “So I thought the clinic would be better, it would be more prepared and cleaner.” 

The JBS plant has had some of the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks. The first, which infected nearly 300 people, took more than six-months to resolve. To date, 474 workers, between the beef plant and corporate offices, have been infected with the virus and seven people died, according to state data.

Hernandez knew many of the people who got sick and died. He wishes JBS had done more early on in the pandemic. 

“I would have preferred if they had done more meetings and talked to us about it and got us more prepared for when it came, because I thought it was too far away and it was going to take a while to get here but then it didn't. It was here from one day to the next.” 

Hernandez is on long-term disability. His wife said he gets about $750 a month, which isn’t enough to cover their expenses. 

“He’s the main breadwinner. I'm retired. It's been rough financially and emotionally, and it's just hard for both of us because he's not able to do what he used to do,” his wife said. “He can't go outside and go for walks. He can't do much outside and it's frustrating for him because I have to do it all.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Alfredo Hernandez's wife Roasario at their Greeley home on Friday, March 5, 2021.

She said JBS did agree to cover his medical expenses as of December, but the worker’s compensation claim they filed was denied. 

They hired a lawyer and are waiting on a hearing. In the meantime, Hernandez just wants to get better. He has great-grandchildren he’d like to be able to play with and ultimately, he’d like to get back to work. 

“If I get better and back to 100 percent and they hire me back, of course I will go back to work,” he said.  

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of workers who contracted COVID-19 at the JBS plant and corporate offices.