The NC Department of Health and Human Services confirms there is a COVID-19 outbreak at a meat-processing facility in Wilkes County, where Triad City Beat has reported that five employees at the Tyson Foods chicken-processing plant have tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
NC DHHS declined to specifically identify Tyson Foods as the facility where employees have tested positive for COVID-19 on the basis that doing would violate the North Carolina Reportable Disease Confidentiality statute by “making the protected health information of the individuals served by that facility identifiable.” But Amy Ellis, a DHHS spokesperson indicated in an email to TCB that Wilkes is among 11 North Carolina counties where there are active COVID-19 outbreaks. Asked if she could specify that the Wilkes County outbreak was a meat-processing facility, Ellis responded, “Yes.”
The Wilkes County Department of Public Health issued a statement on Sunday referencing “several outbreaks in meat processing plants across the state” that went on to say the local agency is “in contact with our local plant to ensure the health and safety of employees.” Tyson employs about 2,700 people at its Wilkes County plant in northwestern North Carolina.
Tyson Foods spokesperson Derek Burleson said in an emailed statement to TCB: “Since this is an ever-changing situation, we’re not sharing specific numbers. We work with local and state health departments along with our facility operations team on a case-by-case basis to make timely decisions about operations. Any changes to normal operations will be communicated with team members.”
Last week, Tyson Foods opted to indefinitely suspend operations at its Waterloo, Iowa plant, its largest pork-processing facility with 2,800 employees, citing worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns.
“In small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors,” wrote John H. Tyson, chairman of the board, in a full-page ad that ran in the New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday. “This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable. As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain. As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”
Burleson said that if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 at any facility, the company notifies anyone who has been in close contact with the person.
Burleson said Tyson Foods is taking several measures to protect workers, including installing infrared walk-through temperature scanners to take workers’ temperatures before they enter facilities, adding deep cleaning and sanitizing procedures, and installing workstation dividers.
He said the company has secured a supply of face coverings that are required for all employees in the facility.
An employee who spoke to TCB on condition of anonymity said workers are wearing handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses.
The email from Burleson also said that Tyson Foods is “relaxing our attendance policy to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick, and eliminating the waiting period for eligibility on short-term disability benefits, so workers can receive pay while they’re sick with the flu or COVID-19.”
Burleson did not respond to a follow-up question seeking clarification on whether the company is guaranteeing paid sick leave to all workers who stay out of work due to illness.
UPDATE: The town of Wilkesboro is confirming that employees at the Tyson Foods plant have tested positive for COVID-19 in a press release issued on April 28 at 11:52 a.m. that includes a quote from Chad Martin, the company’s group president of poultry.