The Tyson Foods Plant in Wilkes County is closing temporarily. This is the second time in a week the facility has shut its doors after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.
The company says it's halting operations due to worker absences and to do more deep cleaning. This comes as meat processing plants across North Carolina are becoming coronavirus hotspots.
In a press release, Tyson says, "The health and safety of our team members, their families and communities are our top priority, and we continue to take all precautions to protect them."
The company's processing complex in Wilkes County is massive. It's the county's largest employer and pumps in hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.
“This facility processes half a million birds every day of the week,” says Ken Noland, the town manager of Wilkesboro. “If you shut down a facility like that, you're shutting down that plant for a short period of time, you're shutting down a whole economy that's built around that facility.”
Noland says a spike in confirmed cases in the county over the last two weeks is related to the plant. County health officials recently tested 200 employees at the Wilkesboro plant and found 39 confirmed cases.
But with about 3,000 workers coming back to the plant, there's a lot of uncertainty.
Noland says it's a tough situation for everyone involved.
“The hard part is it's a balancing act. We're trying to protect the community, we're trying to protect the Tyson team members but we are also under the mandate for the federal government to do everything we can to keep that Tyson plant operating to provide food for the nation,” says Noland.
Tyson didn't respond to questions about absentee rates when the plant reopened on Tuesday. And, while the company has been testing workers this week, local officials are still waiting on Tyson to release the results. On Thursday, Tyson said it will share verified test results with health and government officials as they become available.
Like many in the industry, Tyson has put in place several measures to protect these essential workers and the community. Now when an employee comes into the plant, their temperature is checked with an infrared thermometer called a Thermoscan. Plastic dividers have been installed to separate workspaces, and there's even a tent outside for break room space to help ensure social distancing.
Tyson says it's also providing paid sick leave and other resources for its employees.
But some labor advocates say even with these measures in place, it doesn't mean workers are confident to come back. Juvencio Peralta is with a Greenville-based organization called the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina. Peralta says he worries about those who are working elbow to elbow on production lines.
“I mean a lot of these workers they don't get all of the equipment that they need,” says Peralta. “On top of that, sometimes the production work at these plants it works by minutes, by hours, and it's how much you are going to produce.”
Hunter Ogletree shares those same concerns. He's with the Western North Carolina Workers' Center in Morganton.
Ogletree says one thing that's needed the most is more transparency from the state and industry about where these outbreaks are occurring. These groups want to know how many positive cases are at each plant.
“Knowledge helps keep people safe,” he says. “You know again, we're not asking for the industry to close their doors and stop food production. We are asking them to protect their workers to the fullest extent possible, so that they feel safe going to work and they are safe to go to work.”
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recently began providing the number of cases at meat processing plants across the state. As of Thursday, there are more than 1,600 positive cases that span 17 counties.
If you want to find the overall number of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, there's an online public tool that offers this information by zip code. But DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says the state is still working to find the best way to gather and release information on specific plants.
“I think the zip code level data gives you some good information to start with, but yes we hear you in wanting more information about names,” she says. “But again, because we don't regulate these industries, getting a full and clear accurate picture of this is something we are still trying to get our arms around, but we hope to be able to share something soon.”
This data can't come soon enough for communities like Wilkesboro. Since workers from the Tyson plant come into town from several counties, it's a struggle to keep up with the exact number of COVID-19 cases.
Wilkesboro town manager Ken Noland says Tyson has told the town that their contract medical provider will remain on-site for the duration of the crisis.
Meanwhile, local officials are partnering with the state and Walmart to offer free testing in their community. When it's up and running, it will be available for residents who are already showing symptoms of the virus.
“I think the most important thing that could happen throughout this country is find a way to test our people,” he says. “Because until we test everybody, we don't know what we are dealing with and this thing could ramp back up at any time.”
According to Tyson's press release, it's taking additional steps to protect workers.
"When operations resume, team members at Tyson's Wilkesboro facility will have access to additional testing, daily clinical symptom screenings, nurse practitioners, and enhanced education," says the company.
Noland says Tyson officials have also told him that if it has to close the plant for longer periods, or for more deep cleaning, then it will do so.
So far, none of the meat processing plants in North Carolina have had to close permanently during the pandemic.
Health experts say there has been no evidence that COVID-19 is transferable through food or food packaging.
Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news