As concerns mount over the spread of COVID-19 mount at Tyson Foods’ Wilkesboro chicken-processing facility, Triad City Beat has confirmed that a Congolese immigrant who worked at the facility has died.

Byakubire Mkogabwe, a 71-year-old High Point resident, was employed by Tyson Foods at the Wilkesboro plant, according to his son, Karama Buloze.

“I loved him, and he was helping us to pay rent,” Buloze said in an interview. “He was helping us to buy food, and he was helping us with many things.”

Buloze has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to cover funeral expenses for his father. The page indicates that Mkogabwe died at High Point Medical Center on April 30 “because of COVID-19.”

Tyson Foods temporarily closed one of two plants, which produces tray pack chicken for retail, at its Wilkesboro facility on Saturday and Monday for deep cleaning and sanitizing. Derek Burleson, a company spokesperson, said the plant will reopen on Tuesday.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the Wilkesboro plant was first reported by TCB on April 24 in a story that detailed how five Bhutanese workers who commuted together in a van from High Point tested positive for the virus. In a May 5 press release, the Wilkes County Department of Public Health reported that its staff was working with Tyson Foods to test 200 employees. The company employs about 3,000 people at its Wilkesboro complex, Burleson said.

As of May 7, the New York Times reports that 1,031 employees at a Tyson Foods pork-processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa have tested positive for COVID-19, and that the company confirmed that three employees there have died. The Waterloo plant closed for two weeks in late April and early May, at the urging of the county sheriff and local officials. But amidst the shutdown of the Waterloo plant and worsening troubles at the Wilkesboro facility, President Trump issued an executive order declaring meat-processing plants to be considered “critical infrastructure” as a measure to prevent meat shortages on grocery-store shelves.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services has reported that at least 982 meat-processing workers at 20 different facilities across the state have tested positive for COVID-19, but has so far declined to release specific numbers for each company and facility.

Burleson also declined to comment on workers who have become infected with COVID-19 or died from the virus at Tyson Foods’ Wilkesboro plant.

“Since this is a fluid, ever-changing situation, we’re not sharing specific numbers,” he said in an email to TCB on Sunday. “Team members who test positive will only return to work when they have met criteria outlined by the CDC. We will not hesitate to idle plants to enhance health and safety measures, conduct deep cleaning and sanitizing, and protect our team members.”

As an example, Burleson noted that Tyson Foods idled production at its Dakota City, Neb. beef-processing plant in late April even after President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to maintain meat production.

Byakubire Mkogabwe (courtesy photo)

The circumstances surrounding the death of Byakubire Mkogabwe, the Tyson Foods worker in High Point, are not entirely clear.

“Before he passed away, the doctor said my father was sick from coronavirus,” Karama Buloze, Mkogabwe’s son, told TCB. “Two days later, he passed away. The doctor said he passed away from coronavirus.”

But Buloze said when the family went into the hospital to view his father’s body, the staff gave them Mkogabwe’s clothes. Assuming that a COVID-19 patient’s clothing would be contaminated, the incident raises some doubts in the minds of family members about whether they were given correct information about the cause of death. TCB has submitted a request for a copy of Mkogabwe’s death certificate from the Guilford County Register of Deeds.

Unions and labor advocates around the country have raised concerns that Trump’s executive order puts workers in meat-processing facilities — many of them immigrants and refugees working in jobs that are already dangerous and poorly paid — at risk. But as the administration takes action to maintain production, one top official has reportedly sought to shift responsibility from the meat-processing industry to the workers themselves.

Politico reported that during a recent conference call with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the spread of the virus has more to do with the employees’ home environment than workplace conditions.

“He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem,” Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH) told Politico. “Their theory of the case is that they are not becoming infected in the meat processing plant, they’re becoming infected because of the way they live at home.”

DHHS spokesperson Michael Caputo stated in the same article: “Secretary Azar simply made the point that many public health officials have made: In addition to the meat packing plants themselves, many workers at certain remote and rural meatpacking facilities have living conditions that involve multifamily and congregate living, which have been conducive to the rapid spread of disease.”

Christine Petersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, challenged Azar’s assertion. While it’s difficult to say definitively how the virus is spread without widespread testing, Petersen told Politico: “The risk factor appears to be the packing plants and not the homes, because that’s the gathering place. I don’t think we can say it was because certain groups were socializing more.”

Through testing Tyson Foods employees, the Wilkes County Department of Public Health hopes to be able to understand the spread of the virus in the plant and to identify employees who should self-isolate, the local agency said in its May 5 press release. The health department said it plans to continue work with Tyson Foods to mitigate the outbreak “over the next coming weeks.”

According to the health department, Tyson Foods has reported to local officials that it has instituted temperature and symptom checks, while relaxing attendance policies. Tyson Foods said in an April 29 press release that the company is “increasing short-term disability coverage to 90 percent of normal pay until June 30, 2020 for team members who are unable to work due to illness,” as “another way of encouraging team members to stay home when they are sick.”

The Wilkes County Public Health Department said Tyson Foods is “providing personal protective equipment and employing social distancing policies where possible.” The press release does not indicate whether Tyson Foods has installed clear plastic dividers between workstations, as Mountaire Farms, another poultry processing company, has done at its Siler City plant.

Tyson Foods also told local health officials that it has “waived the copay, co-insurance and deductible for doctor visits or telemedicine for COVID-19 testing as well as eliminated pre-approval and preauthorization steps,” the press release said. The company also said it is doubling the amount of money it will spend on bonuses for 116,000 frontline workers and truckers from $60 million to $120 million.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover expenses for Byakubire Mkogabwe’s funeral.

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