Virginia won’t release data on COVID-19 outbreaks at chicken plants, despite nursing home reversal

By: - July 9, 2020 12:01 am

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, flanked by Gov. Ralph Northam, left, and Secretary of Health Dr, Daniel Carey, right, at a news conference on Capitol Square in last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia is refusing to release information on COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry processing plants on the grounds of privacy concerns, despite a June decision to provide such data for long-term care facilities.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Mercury in June after Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration began releasing facility-specific data for nursing homes, the Virginia Department of Health said it would not provide the same information for poultry processing plants “in order to ensure that VDH is able to preserve the anonymity of individuals whose medical records have been examined during the investigation of COVID-19.”

“VDH is considering how to make the information you have requested available at the health district and/or regional level,” wrote VDH Deputy Commissioner for Governmental and Regulatory Affairs Joseph Hilbert in an email.

Neither a followup request to Hilbert nor an inquiry to the governor’s office about the justification for releasing such information for nursing homes but not poultry plants were answered.

In sharing outbreak information with the public since COVID-19 appeared in the commonwealth in mid-March, Northam’s administration, in what many legislators have said is an overly strict interpretation of state law, has said releasing data on outbreaks at a facility would violate a section of the Virginia code that orders the commissioner of health to “preserve the anonymity of each patient and practitioner.”

VDH cited the same provision in denying the Mercury information about poultry plant outbreaks.

In June, however, facing political pressure and following the release of facility-specific information by the federal government, the Northam administration reversed course on nursing homes. 

“At the start of the pandemic, fewer COVID-19 outbreaks made it difficult to release the names of these facilities while upholding anonymity requirements under Virginia code,” Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky told the Mercury at the time. “Now that there are more cases in Virginia, it is less likely that releasing this information would compromise anonymity or limit cooperation with a public health investigation. It is also important that this information is released now, given inconsistent information reported at the federal level.”

But the same rationale isn’t being applied to poultry plants, despite outbreaks at facilities on the Eastern Shore that have numbered in the hundreds of patients.

Information about plant outbreaks has also been released unevenly. At a news conference May 4, Northam said 260 COVID-19 cases were associated with the major Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms facilities on the Eastern Shore. Two weeks later, following testing events, VDH’s Eastern Shore Health District reported an additional 510 cases associated with the plant. 

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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.