CDC team headed to Virginia to help combat coronavirus spread in poultry plants

By: - April 27, 2020 5:43 pm

A driver participates in a car demonstration in Harrisonburg calling for action to protect Virginia poultry plant workers from COVID-19. (Sarah Alair / For the Virginia Mercury)

A team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been deployed to Virginia after Gov. Ralph Northam, with the governors of Maryland and Delaware, sent a letter on Friday to President Donald Trump seeking assistance in combating coronavirus outbreaks at poultry plants on the Delmarva Peninsula, a major center of U.S. chicken production.

At his regular Monday news conference, Northam said he expected the team of epidemiologists, contact specialists and speakers of Haitian Creole — the language spoken by many plant workers — to arrive in Virginia today, with other teams headed to Maryland and Delaware.

The group will conduct “an overall assessment of the situation” and carry out broader-scale testing “to determine the actual scope of the problem,” he said. 

The announcement followed rising concerns related to the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s meat processing facilities, particularly on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia where Tyson Foods and Perdue employ about 3,000 workers. 

“These poultry plants are a vital part of our food supply chain … but the health of the people who work in these plants is also critically important,” Northam said.

Accomack County, where both the Perdue and Tyson plants are located, showed a spike in COVID-19 cases last week, although neither Virginia nor the companies have publicly confirmed case counts in the facilities.

Virginia Department of Health data released Monday showed 195 cases in Accomack, with 17 hospitalizations and three deaths. The state has also reported five outbreaks in the Eastern Shore Health District, which encompasses Accomack and Northampton counties, although it will not identify where they have occurred.

Major outbreaks have occurred at meat processing plants across the U.S., with the largest thus far emerging at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where 783 workers had tested positive for the virus as of Friday.

Meatpacking facilities are particularly fertile ground for the spread of coronavirus because of the close quarters in which workers labor along the processing line. Companies including Tyson and Perdue have announced plans to install partitions along the lines to separate workers, but the rollouts have taken time, and the process is not complete. Plant workers told the Mercury last week that many departments in Virginia facilities still lack partitions.

Furthermore, as the Friday letter from Northam, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Delaware Gov. John Carney pointed out, many plant workers “live in congregate housing where there is a high risk of community transmission.”

In a statement, Virginia Poultry Federation President Hobey Bauhan said Virginia plants were taking significant and unprecedented steps to protect workers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protecting the workforce is a high priority, and poultry plants are following CDC guidelines for essential food production facilities and working closely with regional health department districts, he said. But, he also cautioned, it is critical that everyone practice social distancing and protective measures while not at work.

As fears of contracting the virus have grown among workers, absenteeism has risen. The Baltimore Sun reported Friday that 2 million chickens in Maryland and Delaware poultry houses are slated to be exterminated rather than sent to processing plants because of a lack of workers to handle them. (Bauhan said he is not aware of any similar actions in the commonwealth.)

But in Virginia the extent of the spread has been largely hidden because of state privacy laws that officials say also apply to facilities, preventing them from disclosing where cases occur.

“Workers indicate that most (if not all) poultry plants in the commonwealth already have multiple workers who have tested positive for COVID-19, and that number is growing daily. Workers are dying from COVID-19 in the commonwealth,” the Legal Aid Justice Center wrote in a joint letter with Virginia Organizing and Community Solidarity with the Poultry Workers to Northam and other state officials Friday. 

“In sum, the potential for an outbreak is ripe, and the time to act is now,” they said. 

Among the measures the groups are advocating is the issuance of enforceable emergency standards to protect workers during the pandemic.

Since the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has not adopted a federal standard that deals specifically with the workplace health and safety risks associated with COVID-19, the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Program (VOSH) has free rein to create its own,” the signatories argued. 

With little evidence of state action until recently, poultry workers in Virginia have engaged in sporadic protests. 

A bicyclist joined a demonstration of about 50 vehicles Monday in Harrisonburg to call for better protections for workers at Virginia poultry plants that are grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks. (Sarah Alair/ For the Virginia Mercury)

About two dozen employees at the Timberville Pilgrim’s Pride facility in the Shenandoah Valley staged a protest in early April. And on Monday, two car rallies in support of poultry workers took place on the Eastern Shore and in Harrisonburg. According to Jason Yarashes, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Eastern Shore rally attracted close to 50 cars.  Organizers said there more than 50 in Harrisonburg.

This story has been updated to add comments from the Virginia Poultry Federation.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.