Across the country, more than 250 employees at meatpacking plants have died of the coronavirus. Congress has opened an investigation into the outbreaks as the companies try to stem the COVID infections.

In North Carolina, one large Tyson Foods poultry plant is making some workplace changes.

The Tyson complex is nestled in the center of Wilkesboro. It's a massive facility, employing around 3,000 people. That's a lot for this small, rural community. The town manager of Wilkesboro, Ken Noland, says it's a challenging time for both the region and Tyson.

“You put that many people together, you got to have cases. It's impossible not to and so we all have to realize that," he says. "This community spread right now has really got us very concerned overall.

Like in all states, COVID-19 vaccine supplies are limited. In North Carolina, the state is just beginning to vaccinate those in the food industry and meatpacking plants. Many workers are Black, Hispanic, or from low-income neighborhoods.

At the Tyson plant, spokesman Derek Burleson says they're bringing the vaccines directly to employees at no cost.

“There will be onsite clinics and facilities to handle the vaccination process and so we are in the process right now of rolling those out,“ says Burleson.

Tyson says vaccinations are not mandatory. But the company is distributing flyers in several languages with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts. Burleson says Tyson has invested nearly $600 million to transform their facilities and many changes are there to stay.

“When you think about those measures they include walk-through temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social distancing monitors,” says Burleson. 

He says random COVID testing will continue at its plants. Most recently the company hired a chief medical officer to help manage and lead its overall response to the pandemic, and they've added 200 nurses and administrative staff to assist at sites.

While it's taken the meatpacking industry a year to put these changes in place, that may not be the toughest obstacle. 

Dr. Julie Swann is with North Carolina State University and an expert in pandemics and the medical supply chain.

“One of the biggest challenges in administering the vaccine in food processing plants is going to be effectively dealing with vaccine hesitancy and concerns that people have about the vaccine, so they really need to be addressed to that specific community and that specific individual,” says Swann.

Cuauhtemoc Herrejon, the Hispanic Community Coordinator at St. John Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church in North Wilkesboro, prepares for a service. KERI BROWN/WFDD


At St. John Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church in North Wilkesboro, the Hispanic congregation is growing. Many are employed at the Tyson plant. Olga Landaverde works on the chicken processing line and caught COVID last year. 

She's not sure whether she'll get vaccinated but is reviewing the information Tyson gave her. There's a lot of different information out there, she says, and it's hard to know what to trust.

Just a few rows across from her in the church sanctuary sits Epifanio Gonzalez. His mom also works at the local Tyson plant. He says she contracted the virus last year and the vaccine weighs heavy on their minds.

"That's one of the questions I ask myself. If I had access to it would I get it right away or wait? I think I'll wait because we don't know what's the side effect,” says Gonzalez. 

That's where Father Jose Rebaque and Cuauhtemoc Herrejon hope they can play a role — telling their congregants that the COVID vaccine is safe and they should get it. 

“We have to encourage the people not to be so afraid about the vaccination because, for most of the people, it's a help," says Rebaque.

"We can see the light with the vaccines now," says Herrejon, the Hispanic Community Coordinator at the church. "Remember when all of the children when they go to school they have to be vaccinated. The adults perhaps they forgot when they got their first vaccines when they were a child. But now it's time for the adults to get it their vaccine too."

Rebaque and Herrejon hope their members will get the shot because they want things to return to normal and have their church be full again.

*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

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