Three months into Virginia’s vaccine rollout, many poultry plant workers have yet to be immunized

By: - March 16, 2021 12:02 am

Tyson workers with plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

All of Virginia has entered Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine rollout — a category that includes essential workers with some of the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. 

But three months after Virginia received its first shipments, some health districts say they’re still in the planning phases of reaching out directly to poultry plant workers, who have shouldered a disproportionate burden of cases throughout the pandemic.

In many cases, those workers didn’t become eligible for the shots until the last two weeks, when most local health districts began “expanding” the 1b category to include residents beyond a narrow class of essential workers and those 65 and older. While Gov. Ralph Northam officially launched the phase in mid-January, a limited supply of doses meant most Virginians still weren’t able to access the shots.

“We actually were directed to limit our Phase 1b to first responders, school and daycare personnel and corrections workers for a time — the top three tiers of workers,” said Dr. Colin Greene, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, which covers the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley.

“Food and agriculture workers are in the fourth tier,” he added. “And there was a time when the central office asked us to hold off on that group while we were busily trying to vaccinate the most vulnerable elderly.”

There are more than half a dozen poultry plants in the region, which stretches down to Buena Vista. The Central Shenandoah Health District reported the state’s first case of COVID-19 in a poultry plant, and the northwestern region accounts for nearly 500 — or about 38 percent — of the roughly 1,326 cases within processing facilities in Virginia, according to data from the state’s Department of Health.

But both health districts have yet to schedule vaccination clinics within the facilities or arrange events specific to their workers. Greene said the plants are “high on the list” and that the department plans to coordinate PODs — public health shorthand for “points of dispensing” — sometime in the next few weeks. 

Laura Lee Wight, a spokesperson for the Central Shenandoah Health District, said the department is “actively planning” events for poultry plant employees, which could take the form of in-house clinics or weekend PODs that are more convenient for workers. 

“We’re still in the planning phase and I don’t know where we are in the planning phase just yet,” she said. The department has distributed educational materials to its seven poultry processing plants and encouraged them to share information on general community clinics with their employees — who just became eligible for shots in the Central Shenandoah Health District last week.

But Wight also acknowledged that barriers to access were driving the district’s efforts to schedule events specifically for plant employees. Some work late shifts that make it difficult to attend clinics during the day, she said. For others, transportation is a challenge. And while VDH translates materials into multiple languages and includes interpretation services for its vaccine hotline, language barriers can also make it difficult for workers to find up-to-date information.

As the Mercury reported in August, cases at poultry plants in Central Shenandoah disproportionately affected Hispanic or Latino workers. On the Eastern Shore, where Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms operate processing facilities, infections predominated among Black workers — including many whose primary language was Haitian Creole.

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

Wight said some plant employees have attended general community clinics, but she couldn’t give the exact number of food and agricultural workers who have been vaccinated in the district. Concerns over access have also led the poultry industry to push for onsite events.

“We feel they’re very important because sometimes transportation is a challenge,” said Hobey Bauhan, the president of the Virginia Poultry Federation. “With that population, doing clinics onsite in a familiar setting we think is helpful and will lead to more people getting vaccinations.”

Some of the state’s largest processing facilities on the Eastern Shore have opted to vaccinate their own workers, but low reported uptake has been a concern for health officials. Jon Richardson, CEO of the Eastern Shore Health District, said both Tyson and Perdue registered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give the shots onsite — Perdue through its own occupational health employees and Tyson through a third-party contractor called Matrix Medical Network.

Five weeks ago, the district allocated around 40 first shots to Perdue based on reported interest among its employees and distributed another 130 the next week — enough for roughly 10 percent of its approximately 1,800 employees, according to Richardson. The facility is vaccinating another 100 workers this week.

Tyson vaccinated 165 workers last month, and another 60 expressed interest last week. But Richardson said Tyson notified him late last week that there wasn’t enough interest to do another first dose vaccination event.

“I found that out late Thursday afternoon and by Friday morning we put together a clinic for this week, just to go ahead and take care of those who want to be vaccinated through the health department,” he said. The district still doesn’t fully understand why uptake has been limited among poultry plant workers and whether work-based clinics or more general vaccine hesitancy is playing a role.

“But I really feel like the more people we can get vaccinated in those plants, the more interest will grow,” Richardson said, which is partly why he was concerned when Tyson told the district it wouldn’t be requesting more doses. 

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

Spokesman Derek Burleson said the company wasn’t able to schedule contractors who could administer the doses onsite this week. Tyson employees will be compensated for up to four hours of regular pay if they’re vaccinated by the health department, but Burleson said he wasn’t aware of any plans to provide transportation to the clinic — something Richardson also asked the company to organize.

“One of the first things I brought up is access issues,” he said. “We’re certainly willing to vaccinate, but if they could give us any help, it would be an advantage.”

In the meantime, the Eastern Shore Health District is working on other ways to reach out to workers. Last week, the department finished translating its outreach materials into Spanish and is putting the final touches on translation into Haitian Creole. Richardson said a district employee then posted the Spanish-language materials at stores in the Latino community. 

The flyers include her direct number so workers can reach someone who speaks Spanish if they want to make a vaccine appointment. 

“Once the Haitian Creole version is done, we’ll be doing the same thing with a direct line to one of our nurses,” he said. 

The department is also reaching out to faith leaders in both communities and planning to hire two new community health workers to reach out to the plants — one who speaks Spanish and one who speaks Haitian Creole.

“Back in the spring, these two poultry plants at one point accounted for something like 75 percent of our total caseload on the entire Eastern Shore,” Richardson said. “Just seeing that impact and the impact on those communities — we don’t want them to go through that again.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.