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By Greg Barnes
Two more meat processing plants in North Carolina are experiencing coronavirus outbreaks, bringing the total number of meat and poultry plants with COVID outbreaks to seven, state health officials announced Thursday.
The state Department of Health and Human Services still won’t name the plants or say how many workers have tested positive at each one. The department defines an outbreak as two or more workers at a plant being diagnosed with COVID-19.
On Tuesday, DHHS said 118 workers had the coronavirus at five plants. That number reached 190 by Thursday afternoon, a 61 percent increase since Tuesday.
DHHS said the two new counties where the outbreaks have occurred are Wilson and Wilkes. They join Bladen, Robeson, Duplin, Lee and Chatham counties. All but Wilkes County, near Winston-Salem, and Chatham County, in the Triangle, are in the eastern part of the state.
Testing at Mountaire
Although DHHS and Smithfield Foods won’t say, local media has reported that one of the processing plants is the giant Smithfield Foods hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel in Bladen County. That plant is believed to be the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world, processing as many as 35,000 hogs a day and employing between 4,400 and 5,000 workers.
Mountaire Farms in Siler City is also on the list, having at least 11 positive cases at a plant that employs about 1,580 people, the company has confirmed. Another Mountaire plant, in Robeson County, is also among the seven.
On Thursday, Mountaire and DHHS partnered to begin testing any employees or their family members experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus at the Siler City plant. Testing will also be done Friday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the plant’s parking lot.
“Our teams have been proactive in providing PPE (Personal protection equipment) to our employees and in creating personal workspace barriers throughout all of our facilities,” Phillip Plylar, president of Mountaire Farms, said in a statement. “We are doing everything in our power to protect our team members from the virus.”
NC Health News seeks records
North Carolina Health News first requested that DHHS reveal the names of the plants and the number of positive cases at each one on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the nonprofit online news publication asked for the information through a public records request to DHHS. NC Health News asked that the information be provided that day.
On Thursday, DHHS spokeswoman Kelly Haight Connor said the request had been forwarded to “our public records folks. They’ll reach out to you.” No response had been received by Thursday night.
N.C. Health News believes the records should have been released by now. Under state law, the custodian of a public record must produce it upon request “at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision.”
Rose Hoban, editor and founder of NC Health News, said the public has a right to know the names of the plants and how many workers have contracted the virus at each one.
“It’s essential that the state provide these records,” Hoban said. “If I was employed at one of those plants, I’d want to know how many of my co-workers had the virus so I could determine whether I needed to take more safety precautions.”
State forms working group
The state is taking the threat of the coronavirus on the nation’s meat and poultry supply seriously. On Tuesday, it announced that N.C. Emergency Management and its State Emergency Response Team partners had formed a Food Supply Chain Working Group to address food production and distribution issues across the state.
“North Carolina is one of the nation’s largest producers of poultry and pork,” Brigadier General Allen Boyette of the N.C. Army National Guard said in a statement. Boyette is leading the Food Supply Chain Working Group. “If production falters, the impacts will be felt hard within our state and far beyond our borders.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no evidence to suggest that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food.
Companies taking action
Workers at Mountaire’s Siler City plant and an advocate for the Latino community expressed concerns this week that the plant didn’t do enough, soon enough, to protect employees.
Mountaire, like Smithfield, has taken major steps in the last two weeks to provide personal protective gear, hand sanitizing stations and plastic dividers between workers on assembly lines. Mountaire has increased hourly salaries by $1, added a sick pay program and relaxed its attendance policy. Smithfield has promised workers in Tar Heel a $500 bonus if they did not miss work through the end of April.
Despite the improvements, more than 3,300 people have signed a petition demanding Mountaire Farms guarantee that all workers, including temporary workers, keep their jobs if they elect to stay home because of the virus and that they will receive paid leave immediately. The petition was made by a group calling itself “Justice for Mountaire Workers.”
Smithfield in South Dakota
At Smithfield Foods, a company spokesman again declined to say how many workers at the Tar Heel plant have tested positive for the coronavirus.
At a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, nearly 1,000 workers and others associated with the plant have contracted the virus. That plant is now considered the biggest hotspot for coronavirus in the country. It has been closed since April 14. Two plant workers have died.
That plant processes about 5 percent of the nation’s pork products. The Smithfield plant in Tar Heel processes about 8 percent. As the shutdown of the South Dakota plant continues, it is threatening to cause farmers there to kill off some of their hogs. The hogs, which continue to grow, don’t have anywhere else to go.
On Thursday, the CDC issued a 15-page memo that details conditions it found at Smithfield’s South Dakota plant and recommends improvements. The report was made after CDC officials spent a week inside the plant.
Among the biggest findings was a failure to communicate with workers who speak a multitude of languages. According to the CDC’s report, workers who showed symptoms of the virus were sent home with an informational pamphlet about the virus that was written in English. Among the recommendations in the report is for Smithfield to improve communications with workers, follow a strict social-distancing policy, and ensure that workers wear masks at all times.
Smithfield had little to say initially about the report.
“We will thoroughly and carefully examine the report point by point and respond in full once our assessment is complete,” Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield spokeswoman, said in a statement.