Bill requiring public reporting of major outbreaks still alive, but Senate nixes emergency enactment

By: - February 9, 2021 12:03 am

A truck leaves Tyson’s Tempranceville plant in Accomack County. (Jim Ritch/ Eastern Shore Post)

A bill from Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, that would require large employers like poultry plants to publicly report any COVID-19 outbreaks that have been linked by the Virginia Department of Health to the worksite cleared the Senate Friday night. 

Crucially, however, the measure failed to garner enough support to go into effect immediately if it passes both houses of the legislature and is signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Without an emergency enactment provision, the bill could not become effective until July 1. 

Lewis, who represents a district on the Eastern Shore that has seen more than 700 workers at its Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms poultry plants sickened by COVID-19 during the pandemic and multiple deaths, needed to get 32 votes in the 40-member Senate to pass his legislation with the emergency provision. A first vote Friday only saw 29 senators support the bill, and several hours of behind-the-scenes vote whipping failed to bring an additional three over to Lewis’s side, leading the senator to remove the emergency provision.

Ultimately only 27 senators voted in favor of the legislation. All of those who opposed it were Republicans.

Transparency concerns dogged the state’s response to the spring’s major poultry plant outbreaks, which occurred both on the Eastern Shore and in the Shenandoah Valley. The Department of Health has consistently refused to provide case counts by facility on the grounds that it would violate a section of state code ordering the commissioner of health to “preserve the anonymity of each patient and practitioner.”  The Virginia Department of Health lists nine deaths from COVID-19 linked to meatpacking plants across the state but does not break those down by locality.

Workers at the state’s poultry plants complained that they were not being notified of all cases at the facilities. One wing packer at a Tyson facility in Temperanceville on the Eastern Shore told the Mercury in late April that “word of mouth was that we have maybe 10 or more cases up there, but us employees were only told about two cases.” Many workers found out about cases via Facebook. 

In fact, as a Freedom of Information Act request by the Mercury later showed, the Tyson facility had by that time reported roughly three dozen cases to VDH

Local governments, such as the Accomack Board of Supervisors, also struggled in late May to make reopening decisions without full information from VDH. 

Lewis’s bill, Senate Bill 1362, aims to address those transparency concerns by requiring any workplace with 50 or more employees that reports five or more cases within 14 days and for which VDH determines “a likely epidemiological linkage between cases” to publicly report the name of the facility and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Currently workplaces only have to report cases to VDH. 

While the law does not specifically mention poultry plants, Lewis has been open during hearings and in interviews that it was crafted in response to the outbreaks at those facilities. 

“What we’re trying to do here again is provide transparency to the public. We saw hysteria break out as these cases continued to rise,” he told the Senate Friday. 

“It also enables the workers to make choices … to give them the necessary information, and to make the necessary choices about their own health, their own safety,” he added. “And again, I think it also encourages employers to take the measures that are necessary to alleviate, ameliorate the outbreak at the particular employment site.”

An additional provision would require VDH to issue a report “when previously reported outbreaks are under control.” 

During committee hearings, the only opposition came from Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and the Senate’s only practicing doctor. 

“I think this is better handled in the hands of our epidemiologists in Virginia and that we shouldn’t be making this publicly reported unless the health department thinks it’s important to do so,” Dunnavant said. “It’s different with nursing homes.”

According to the bill, VDH would be responsible for determining whether a “likely epidemiological linkage” between cases exists in order to trigger the reporting requirement.

Lewis’s bill will now be heard in the House, where it has been referred to the Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions. 

Last week also saw action on the federal level, with the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launching an investigation into outbreaks at poultry and meatpacking facilities nationwide. In a letter to Tyson, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, all of which operate plants in Virginia, the committee highlighted reports indicating the businesses had “refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers,” resulting “in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying.”

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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. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]