Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors in Austin — together the state's largest meat-processing complex — had avoided a significant COVID-19 outbreak this spring. Until now.

The number of COVID-19 cases at the two plants jumped from a couple of dozen two weeks ago to more than 200 on Friday, despite company efforts to fight the type of outbreaks that have raced through many meatpacking plants in Minnesota and across the country.

"It's really been about flattening the curve," said Richard Carlson, Hormel Foods vice president of quality management. "How long can we stave it off?"

Hormel's plant in its hometown employs more than 1,800 people who make hams, bacon, Spam and other products. It is supplied by an adjacent hog slaughterhouse run by a separate company, Quality Pork, which has 1,300 workers.

Together, the plants have 231 diagnosed COVID-19 cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Carlson said Hormel had about 50 "active" COVID cases in Austin and nearly 60 cumulatively. The balance of diagnoses — about 170 — have been at Quality Pork.

"We continue to take this situation very seriously and for months, our team did its part to prevent COVID from entering our facility," exceeding federal safety guidelines, said Quality Pork President Nate Jansen in a press statement. "Unfortunately, as the COVID spread continued into our region, our team members began seeing the impact in our community."

Mower County, which hosts the plants, has seen a sharp spike in COVID-19 diagnoses in the past two weeks — and not just at the meat plants. The number of cases rose from 119 on May 22 to 440 on Friday, health department data show.

"The preliminary evidence we have suggests that while there are cases among [meat plant employees], there is also substantial community spread," Doug Schultz, a health department spokesman, said in an e-mail.

"Because of the increase in cases in Mower County, state and county officials, the plants, and Mayo [Clinic] are working on a plan for testing employees, household members and community members this weekend and next week."

Hormel, Carlson said, began rolling out safeguards against the pandemic in March, an effort that intensified as time went on. Precautions included production line barriers, personal protective equipment and spacing of workers to increase social distancing.

The company also coached workers on how to best avoid the virus outside the plant, Carlson said. But some workers still must carpool to work. And employees and local citizens generally were likely mixing more in public during Memorial Day weekend, he added.

So far, 1,669 meat-processing plant workers in Minnesota have been diagnosed with COVID-19, about 10% of all cases in the state, health department data show.

That's far more than their proportion of the state's workforce.

The largest outbreak has been at JBS' pork plant in Worthington, with 791 cases, followed by Pilgrim's Pride chicken operation in Cold Spring with 256 and the Long Prairie Packing beef facility with 245. There have been an additional 338 cases across five turkey plants owned by Hormel's Jennie-O division.

The Health Department said it hasn't released data on hospitalizations and asymptomatic cases at meat plants because of the complexity of doing so.