COVID-19 cases keep climbing at Virginia poultry plants; some members of Congress seek better protections

By: and - May 5, 2020 7:25 am

A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of protecting poultry processing plant workers from COVID-19. (Legal Aid Justice Center)

COVID-19 cases continue to rise at Virginia’s Eastern Shore poultry plants, with Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday reporting more than 260 cases associated with two facilities run by Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms in Accomack County.

“We are also still closely tracking cases in the Shenandoah Valley, which has a large number of plants — cases that have increased as well, but the increase is smaller and could be leveling off,” said Northam. “Our focus right now remains on the Shore.”

Poultry plant-related cases now represent about 60 percent of Accomack’s confirmed cases, which according to the Virginia Department of Health totaled 425 Monday. Twenty-one people in the county have been hospitalized, and six have died.

How much testing has been conducted is unclear. Despite VDH previously providing testing numbers by locality, the department’s new dashboard omits the metric.

Larry Hill, public information officer for VDH’s Eastern Region, said in an email Monday that this data “has been taken down for a few days but will be back up sometime this week.”

State attention has increasingly turned to the Eastern Shore over the past week and a half as outbreaks emerged at the Tyson Temperanceville and Perdue Accomac facilities. Last week, in response to a request from Northam, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Delaware Gov. John Carney, teams of workers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were deployed to the Delmarva Peninsula to help stem the disease’s spread at the region’s numerous poultry processing facilities. However, some advocates have pressed for the state to do more on its own.

Testing is currently available at 10 sites on Virginia’s portion of the Eastern Shore, said Hill, who also noted that the CDC has visited the Accomack plants and is providing them guidance.

On Friday night, the Tyson Temperanceville plant announced on its Facebook page that it would be conducting mandatory COVID-19 testing for all employees on May 5 and 6 “in order to protect the health and safety of all team members.”

On Friday night, the Tyson Temperanceville plant announced on its Facebook page that it would be conducting mandatory COVID-19 testing for all employees on May 5 and 6 “in order to protect the health and safety of all team members.” (Screenshot)

Perdue Director of Corporate Communications Diana Souder said Tuesday evening that the company would be testing Accomac employees for COVID-19 on Wednesday and Thursday.

The CDC visited the Accomac plant last week, she reported, writing in an email that while an official report has not yet been prepared, “generally, they were impressed with their findings at our plants and commented that we had done more than expected to keep our associates safe.”

In Washington, Democratic senators asked President Donald Trump to amend an executive order he signed last week, which declared meat plants to be “critical infrastructure” and ordered his administration to ensure that they continue to operate.

“Without immediate, comprehensive intervention by the federal government to ensure the health and safety of workers at these plants, workers in the meat processing industry will remain at extremely high risk of contracting the virus and the plants will continue to be a major vector of significant infection,” the Democratic senators wrote last week in a letter to Trump.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were at least 115 meat or poultry processing facilities nationwide with COVID-19 cases by April 27. More than 4,900 workers had been diagnosed with the disease, and 20 deaths linked to COVID-19 had been reported among those workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — the nation’s largest meatpacking union — puts the number of infections even higher, stating that 6,500 meat industry workers had contracted COVID-19.

CNN reported last week that although Trump gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue the power to invoke the Defense Production Act to order companies to continue operating, the department hadn’t forced any shuttered facilities to reopen. The order could, however, allow the federal government to override the decisions of state and local officials who may try to close plants based on health concerns.

The Democratic senators accused the administration of refusing to use its existing authority to keep workers safe.

“In light of the woeful lack of federal standards and enforcement, state and local officials have recently taken action to close several unsafe meatpacking plants that put workers and their communities at risk,” they wrote to the president.

The administration’s use of the Defense Production Act to mandate plants’ reopening “could prevent State and local authorities from compelling companies to provide workers with essential protections, and thus being able to keep their communities safe,” they wrote. They urged Trump to amend his executive order to mandate that meat plants shuttered by officials or of their own accord could reopen only after meeting safety guidelines.

Last week, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released new voluntary guidance for meat and poultry processing facilities intended to improve worker safety. It notes that workers often work close to one another on processing lines for prolonged periods of time, and it urges employers to keep workers at least six feet apart or put physical barriers between them, “if feasible.”

But Democrats and some former safety officials want the administration to implement tougher standards. Advocates have also called on Northam’s administration to impose enforceable safety rules.

Deborah Berkowitz, a former senior policy advisor at OSHA, said on a conference call earlier this month that the “outbreak in meatpacking was not inevitable.”

She added, “It was because of a decision by all big meat companies to not implement basic guidance that the CDC issued back in March to keep everyone six feet apart and prevent the spread of COVID-19 … The companies will continue to prioritize production and profits over worker safety until they are required to implement safe provisions.”

Democrats in the House and Senate are separately pushing for legislation that would require emergency enforceable standards to protect workers from COVID-19 exposure while on the job.

The House version of the bill has 63 Democratic co-sponsors and one Republican backer, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. At least 20 co-sponsors had signed on to the Senate version of the legislation, including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

This story has been updated to add comments from a Perdue spokesperson.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.