State’s official Eastern Shore virus data still doesn’t show hundreds of poultry worker tests

By: - May 22, 2020 12:01 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)

A week after the results of widespread testing at the Eastern Shore’s Tyson and Perdue poultry plants revealed about 18 percent of workers were positive for coronavirus, state health statistics still don’t reflect the full case numbers and local officials have not been provided updated figures.

Following nationwide outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat processing plants, Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods tested some 2,875 workers at their plants in Accomac and Temperanceville in Accomack County during the week of May 4. Of those, 510 tests were positive, according to a May 15 news release from the Eastern Shore Health District

Because “the labs that processed the tests are not connected to (Virginia Department of Health) electronic reporting and each result will have to be entered manually into the database to be counted,” the positives would not appear on the state dashboard for “several days,” the same release said.

But one week later, publicly reported state totals still do not account for more than a fraction of the 510 tests, leaving local officials without updated numbers as the county enters the second half of its extended “Phase Zero” restrictions.

Accomack’s decision last week to not enter Phase 1 reopening along with most of the rest of the state was itself a reaction to what a majority of leaders on the Board of Supervisors described as insufficient information. 

County administrator Michael Mason at a special meeting on May 13 noted that while Gov. Ralph Northam had established a set of key metrics to guide decision-making about reopening, “we do not have this unique (information) for Accomack County.”

“That is information we think is vital to knowing,” he told the Board of Supervisors, according to a recording of the meeting. “And we have requested it, but we did not receive that information in time for this meeting. … Without this information, we cannot determine whether we are tracking with state guidelines for reopening.”

Supervisor Donald Hart, who also serves as the county’s director of emergency services, said that with “us being so rural and in the area that we are and with our population, it concerns me to go ahead and open, and we don’t even have all the numbers yet, especially from the poultry plants.”

Among the four options weighed by the board was one that would have delayed a Phase 1 reopening for seven instead of 14 days to allow officials to obtain sufficient data from the state before making a decision. 

But upon questioning by Board Vice Chair Ron Wolff about whether the county could obtain more information from Richmond within the next seven days, Eastern Shore Health District Environmental Health Manager Jon Richardson told officials “it would not be in the best interest of you all to depend on getting the data from our agency.”

“For one, because I’m kind of at the mercy of them, not the other way around, unfortunately at times,” said Richardson. “And two, we’re going to get a lot of results dumping in over the course of the next week, which is going to significantly skew the percent positivity that we see, which is what the governor is kind of using as his main metrics, based on the poultry plant testing and the community testing.”

At the time of the supervisors’ decision, official state counts put Accomack’s cases at 530, while neighboring Northampton sat at 170. 

Today, the picture isn’t much clearer. Accomack’s County Administrator’s Office said Thursday that it is also relying on Virginia Department of Health numbers for its information. But May 21 counts showed only 709 cases in Accomack and 206 in Northampton — figures far too low to account for all of the 510 from the plants noted in the Eastern Shore Health District’s May 15 release. 

Even without those cases included, Accomack ranks third in the state for its case rate per 100,000 people (behind Richmond County and Buckingham County). 

The Virginia Department of Health did not respond to an inquiry about the inclusion of the 510 confirmed plant cases in state data.

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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.