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With more farmers and food handlers testing positive for the coronavirus, consumers wonder if food is safe to eat.

With more farmers and food handlers testing positive for the coronavirus, consumers wonder if food is safe to eat. - North Carolina Health News

Headlines are filled with farmers and food handlers testing positive for the novel coronavirus, making consumers wonder whether or not it is safe for us to eat that food. We’ll break it down for you.

By Aaliyah Bowden

News reports have been filled in recent weeks with accounts of workers at meat processing plants coming down with COVID-19 at their workplaces. Farmers and food manufacturers have tested positive for the virus, and some have expressed concern over whether the virus can be transmitted by touching or eating food from these farms and processing plants.

Should consumers be worried?

The science behind food safety gives us clues on how to think about this situation.

There’s still plenty we don’t know about COVID-19. But what we do know is that the virus is transmitted from person to person, primarily through respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That makes it unlikely for the virus to appear in food.

CDC officials say there’s no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food, even if someone handling it coughs or sneezes nearby.

Experts say that if consumers follow safety measures while preparing food  such as washing produce and cooking meat to proper temperatures, there’s no need to worry.

If a respiratory droplet from COVID-19 was consumed, our digestive system would break the virus down and it would not affect us, they explained.

“The good news with this particular virus is that it is not a foodborne virus,” said Ben Chapman, a professor at N.C. State who studies food safety.

Food doesn’t travel into the respiratory system, Chapman explained.

“Most of the food that we eat, ends up getting right into our gut and ends up encountering a whole bunch of acid in our stomachs,” he said. “And this virus particularly doesn’t really remain infectious once it hits the stomach.”

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In other words, if someone were to cough on our food, it’s unlikely to harm us because our bodies have the ability to break it down, something that’s not true for all pathogens, such as E. coli or norovirus. Unlike gastrointestinal foodborne viruses like Hepatitis A or norovirus which make people ill through contaminated food, food exposure is unlikely to transmit COVID-19 according to a statement this week by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration.

So how would we manage to eat without getting sick?

One answer has to do with proper food preparation.

Food Prep 101

There are four basic practices to making food safe: make sure supplies and food preparation surfaces are clean, separate raw meats from fresh produce, cook foods thoroughly, and chill food thoroughly after it’s cooked, says guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A farmer slices open a tomato. Farmers have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic ripple effects
Farmers in Western NC face challenges including closed markets during the coronavirus pandemic. Seen here, before the crisis, a farmer slices open a tomato at a farmers market. Photo credit: Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

Common food handling mistakes in the kitchen are cross-contamination, not washing hands properly, cooking foods at the wrong temperatures, and not allowing specific foods enough time to cool, according to Chapman.

“Beef, poultry, fish and flour, which is a raw food, they can have pathogens associated with them because of the way we get food. In meat and poultry, animals can spill pathogens that could have been in their digestive tract around and that could get on meat.”

He added these pathogens can be minimized but all of them won’t be eliminated.

So even if COVID-19 was something that could be transmitted by food, proper preparation would eliminate the risk of getting sick. That’s because we heat up our meats to certain safe temperatures before consuming it.

The “kill step” is a term used in food safety circles to talk about killing pathogens in food through cooking it at the right temperature. It’s when that step in cooking is overlooked by folks cooking at home that they get into trouble.

The correct temperature for beef, pork, veal and lamb is 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and poultry must be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure safe consumption, according to the USDA.

These high temperatures would also kill any potential coronavirus.

Master Blend Family Farms, LLC, a hog farm located in Kenansville, NC says all of their pork items are held at -12 degrees Fahrenheit according to Ronald Simmons, the president of MBFF. After that, the product goes to cooks who bear the responsibility for proper preparation.

The USDA advises all food handlers to separate raw meats from raw vegetables and cooked foods to prevent foodborne illnesses. If meat and poultry products are not separated, juices can leak and contaminate other food.

More people are cooking at home now because restaurants are closed, said Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

“We’re asking [people to] pay special attention to washing their hands, make sure there is not room for cross-contamination in the home,” he said.

He added leftovers need to be refrigerated quickly and stored properly in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.

Soap and water do the trick

When handling foods that might have pathogens, soap and water and other disinfectants are crucial to eradicating bacteria from one’s hands.

Normal soap removes 99 percent of germs from our hands.

Chapman said washing hands with normal soap instead of antibacterial soap when handling food is the best defense for killing off germs because washing – best done with hot water – removes soil that may contain virus particles and allows those particles to go down the drain.

“There are two things we look at in food safety,” Chapman explained. “We look at bacteria and we look at viruses and they are two different biological microorganisms.”

Unlike normal soap, antibacterial soap is used to rid bacteria from the hands and in cells. Antibacterial soaps are primarily formulated for bacterial infections and not viral infections such as coronavirus. Antibacterial soap could eliminate some virus particles but would not be as effective as normal hand soap. Normal hand soap is a better choice in food safety because the formula will weaken virus particles and kill off most of the germs from the hands.

“The antibacterial soap is in the name,” Chapman continued. “[It’s] not formulated for viruses.”

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer might not be the best in food safety situations because the solution does not kill every virus, Chapman said. He explained that when food safety specialists consider hand sanitizer in the workplace they have to decide which variables they are trying to control and what microorganisms the worker is more prone to encounter preparing food.

“If there was a norovirus outbreak, I definitely wouldn’t suggest to people in restaurants or consumers to use hand sanitizer. But with SARS-CoV2, because hand sanitizer actually works to inactivate the virus—because of the biology of the virus, then I would recommend it,” he said.

What about proper hand-washing for farmers?

It’s easy for farmers to be exposed to pathogens on the farm when growing fresh produce and livestock. Farmers are still considered employees and are required to follow the FDA food code which includes proper hand-washing practices. Workers are required to wash their hands for 20 seconds, scrubbing for at least 10 to 15 seconds during hand-washing, according to the FDA.

“Research has shown a minimum 10-15 second scrub is necessary to remove transient pathogens from the hands and when an antimicrobial soap is used, a minimum of 15 seconds is required,” wrote Chris Gunter, an N.C. State professor, in an email to NC Health News.

The CDC recommends consumers wash their hands for 20 seconds and scrub for an extra five seconds.

Gunter added a warm water temperature is “important for achieving the maximum surfactant effect of the soap.”

Vegetable safety

Eating raw foods such as salads are still safe, too, Chapman said, noting that the only way for a person to catch the coronavirus from a sick farmer is if they personally traveled to the farm and were in contact with an infected farmer.

Fresh produce at the State Farmers' Market in Raleigh. Proposed food safety rules might adversely affect farmers selling more than $500,000 worth of produce each year.
Fresh produce at the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh. Proposed food safety rules might adversely affect farmers selling more than $500,000 worth of produce each year. Photo courtesy Kel and Val, flickr creative commons.

“The biggest risk in COVID-19 has nothing to do with food or surfaces, the biggest risk is being around other people,” he said. “When it comes to food and food packaging we don’t have any evidence of people getting sick, getting the virus through those means.The risk of getting sick from food is extremely low.”

The novel coronavirus has a “poor survival” rate in outdoor environments where plants grow, according to Gunter. He said that there is not enough data collected to make a statement on COVID-19 living on plants.

Now what if a farmer coughs or sneezes on food?

“The best way for it to infect me is if I touch that produce… and then I don’t wash my hands,” explained Chapman. “As a consumer, I can do a lot of hand-washing, after I handle food to really protect myself, not just from COVID-19, but from other foodborne illness issues as well.”

Throughout the state, there are growing reports of farmworkers testing positive for the virus. For example, three people in one farm family in Lee County tested positive for the virus, said Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health, a network of community health centers.

“Then we went and tested their farmworkers, and they were just as positive as the farmers,” Toomey said. “And so we just had one farm where 19 to 20 workers were positive in Lee County.”

N.C. State reported at the regular NC Food Safety and Defense Task Force meeting on May 13 that they are working with farmers around this issue.

“We are seeing a number now of growers reporting stages of COVID among farmworkers,” Gunter confirmed at the task force meeting. “We’re dealing with that on the resource side, as well as helping growers understand how to prevent the spread (of COVID-19) and following the CDC guidelines.

As the pandemic surges on, there are no FDA workers traveling to complete in-person inspections on farms or other firms to ensure food safety standards are being met, according to FDA spokesperson Nicole Clausen who also spoke at the task force meeting. Instead, they’re focusing on document reviews, until they can get back out to facilities.

But if you still have anxiety over your fresh produce, Gunter said there are some extra precautions to take.

“We (NC State) are recommending consumers not buy damaged or bruised vegetables and only touch the fruit or vegetable that you are going to purchase,” he said in an email.

“Wash the produce you buy in water only. You can rub the firm skinned fruit with a clean brush or your clean hands under running water. Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel. Don’t use soap or bleach on those fruits and veggies.”

Drinking chlorine bleach?

With viral infections and outbreaks in the past, people have used disinfectants to prevent the spread. Can we do the same for the COVID-19 virusSARS-CoV2?

Many health experts quickly discouraged consumers from consuming chlorine dioxide, commonly known as bleach, after President Donald Trump suggested people ingest disinfectants as a preventative measure.

“These products are often not labeled for this purpose and they can be harmful to people’s health if used in a way that is not on their product label,” Chris Gunter, a professor at N.C. State University said in an email.

Chlorine is known to be effective for disinfecting surfaces contaminated with the coronavirus virus, said Gunter.

Recently, there have been several medical inquiries finding that the original SARS virus that emerged in 2002 can be eliminated through household disinfectants, the same way hepatitis, polio and other viral infections have in the past.

Scientists completed an experiment that tested common disinfectants against hepatitis virus to see if it could be a potential surrogate to the SARS virus in a 2009 study.

Common household disinfectants or antiseptics containing small amounts of triclosan, PCMX, sodium hypochlorite or pine oil, or a solution with 79 percent alcohol demonstrated a significant reduction of the virus within 30 seconds of contact time.

A different study showed the original SARS virus can survive up to 96 hours on some surfaces, while other studies indicated that the virus retained infectivity up to six days on a surface, according to the study.

The new coronavirus that’s circulating (known as SARS CoV-2) can remain for hours or even days depending on the surface, and cleaning areas using disinfectants is the “best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings,” according to the CDC.

The CDC says that there are no reports on the transmission of SARS CoV-2 to a person from contaminated surfaces but still recommends thorough cleaning.

 

What about UV light?

The initial strain of the novel coronavirus that caused the original SARS outbreak in 2002 could be inactivated by ultraviolet light, according to a study conducted after that outbreak.

“I won’t claim any expertise in this area,” said Chris Gunter, a food safety professor at N.C. State University. “[But] It appears that UV light does have some efficacy on disinfecting surfaces contaminated with the virus.”

In experiments performed in 2004 on the original SARS virus, a UV light source was placed several centimeters from virus samples. After one minute of exposure to UVB or UVC light, the virus was partially inactivated, and the more time the virus was exposed, the more the virus was nullified. After 15 minutes of being exposed, the virus was completely destroyed.

UVB is common in sunlight at low levels and contributes to sunburns on sunny days. UVC light is almost completely filtered out by the atmosphere and is only generated by special bulbs. UVC is commonly used in hospitals for disinfecting surfaces. In contrast, when the virus samples were exposed to UVA light, which is common in sunlight, there was no evidence that the light could inactivate the virus.

Some food manufacturers and producers are starting to use UV light to disinfect produce.

Latinos, the coronavirus and a single ZIP code

Latinos, the coronavirus and a single ZIP code - North Carolina Health News

The 27344 ZIP code, which includes Siler City and Mountaire Farms, has become a hotspot for the coronavirus in North Carolina. Latinos who live in the ZIP code are suffering greatly, but nonprofit organizations can only do so much.

By Greg Barnes and Victoria Bouloubasis 

This story is being co-published with Enlace Latino NC. Read it here in Spanish.

Maricela Martinez still remembers getting her first paycheck from a chicken processing plant in Siler City — $280 for a week’s worth of work back in 1999.

“It made me cry,” Martinez said. “This was my first job at a company and allowed me to earn my own money and support my sons.”

Martinez arrived in Siler City 21 years ago, joining an influx of Latino immigrants who continue to be drawn to this small Chatham County town on the promise of steady employment, decent wages and more economic stability than they had back home.

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But now, as the coronavirus continues to race through North Carolina’s meat and poultry processing plants, workers at Siler City’s Mountaire Farms and other facilities across the state are facing the grim decision of whether cutting up chicken is worth risking their lives.

Despite a multitude of recent safety precautions, the plants remain breeding grounds for the virus, largely because hundreds of workers stand closely together on production lines and eat together in cafeterias.

Neither Mountaire nor state health officials will say how many of Mountaire’s nearly 1,800 workers in Siler City have contracted the coronavirus, but the ZIP code that includes the plant and the city suggests that it is a sizable number.

Only one of the more than 1,000 ZIP codes in the state has more confirmed cases than the 27433 ZIP code that encompasses Siler City in Chatham County. There, as of Wednesday, 414 people had tested positive.

Reasons abound for such a high number. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected Latinos and African Americans, partly because of poverty, crowded living quarters, employment in service-related jobs, underlying health conditions and a reluctance to interact with the health care system.

Latinos comprise 35 percent of the state’s 24,140 confirmed cases of the coronavirus but make up only 9.6 percent of the state’s population.

U.S. Census figures show that 30 percent of the 18,798 people living in the Siler City ZIP code are Latino, but that percentage is believed to be low because many undocumented immigrants go uncounted.

As a group, the statistics show, people living in the ZIP code have a lower income, have fewer years of education and are more likely to live in a small home with many other family members. The figures show that 30 percent of children in the ZIP code live in poverty, 1.3 times the state’s rate.

Nonprofits can only do so much

All of those factors have turned the ZIP code into one of the top coronavirus hotspots in North Carolina. And because of that, advocates say, a large segment of its Latino community is struggling to meet even the most basic needs.

Nonprofit organizations are trying to help as best they can. Funds and networks have been set up to assist, but they can only do so much.

With the support of five other nonprofit groups, El Vinculo Hispano — also known as The Hispanic Liaison — established the Chatham Solidarity Fund, largely to help Latinos who didn’t qualify for a federal stimulus check because of their immigration status.

The initial goal was to raise $360,000. Organizers don’t expect to reach that level, but they have raised nearly $160,000, which will go a long way toward helping people pay their bills and put food on the table.

“It’s a one-time infusion to help alleviate some financial stress,” said Ilana Dubester, founder and director of The Hispanic Liaison. “It is not going to be a long-term solution, but for many, I’m sure, it will be a big relief. They might be able to pay two months of rent. They might be able to buy food or whatever else they need.”

Marcella Slade, who coordinates a new Neighbor2Neighbor program through the Chatham County nonprofit chapter of Abundance NC and the Chatham News + Record, said most of the people contacting her want help with rent or utility payments.

But that’s far from all, Slade said.

They ask for “water, milk, toilet paper, potatoes, beans,” she said. “The people that are poor are the ones suffering the most. It’s definitely pulled out that social difference.”

Adults aren’t the only ones suffering. The problems experienced by parents are being passed down to their children.

Selina Lopez, who manages a Latino youth group at The Hispanic Liaison, said many of the teenagers she works with have parents who work at Mountaire Farms.

“It’s not just a corporation issue. It very much affects the family as a whole,” Lopez said. “My youth are having increased anxiety and stress. They’re really scared for their parents’ health and, being removed from the daily routine of adult mentors like teachers, they are having increased feelings of isolation. They really fear for their parents’ safety and feel their families are not being supported. It’s taking a huge toll on them.”

 “Welcome to Work”

Through economic lulls and booms, the textile and poultry industries have long anchored their factories in Siler City. In a 1964 campaign touting new factory jobs coming to town, a narrator excitedly proclaims: “Siler City can say confidently to its young people and future citizens: ‘Welcome to Work.’” The last three words are emblazoned on screen, beckoning generations of new workers to the rural South.

The “polleras,” or poultry plants, are a looming presence in Siler City’s working-class communities, historically employing African Americans and, as the term was coined then, “ethnic whites” of European descent.

In the 1980s, recruiters sought cheaper labor and called on immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the U.S.-Mexico border to work.

The Townsend chicken plant stood where Mountaire Farms is now. Gold Kist, another former poultry plant, was located closer to downtown, near Dubester’s office. It was later bought by Pilgrim’s Pride.

Latino newcomers entered an already racially segregated labor market and were met with community tension from Siler City natives, both black and white, especially as the Latino population grew.

In 1990, the town’s population totaled 4,995. Of those, 3 percent were Hispanic (as classified by the Census). By 2000, the Latino population jumped to 40 percent. That same year, a few prominent locals invited former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke to host a rally in town. His words specifically targeted the Spanish-speaking population. Records from that time note that many Latino residents thought it was an event sponsored by local officials since it was held on the steps of Town Hall.

Latinos continued to cut and process chicken until plant closures. Siler City’s Pilgrim’s Pride factory shuttered in 2008, leaving more than 800 people jobless; Townsend closed in 2011.

In 2010, as the town fumbled to recover from the 2008 economic recession, Siler City’s total population dropped by 1,000, to less than 4,000 people. Yet Latinos made up 49.8 percent of Siler City’s population in 2010, making them the majority group in town, with established families, several church congregations (both Catholic and Pentecostal), celebrated youth soccer teams, and flourishing, visible businesses in historic downtown storefronts and modern strip malls.

A small storefront has become a Latino church: Espiritu Santo reads the sign. Siler City has one of the highest rates of COVID infection in North Carolina
Siler City’s Latinos make up 43% of the town’s population. Several downtown storefronts are home to tiendas and Spanish-language churches. Photo credit: Victoria Bouloubasis

When Townsend closed, many Latinos found work at chicken plants in neighboring counties or found other jobs. But they maintained their homes in Siler City.

Today, Latinos still make up almost 43 percent of the total population according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

Emilio Vicente, a community organizer, has lived in Siler City since he was old enough to start elementary school in the 1990s. His family came from Guatemala and spoke K’iche’, an indigenous Mayan language; his mother was the only adult who spoke enough Spanish to acclimate them to the area. She worked at the poultry plants, too. So did Vicente’s father and uncles.

He says he was too young to remember the David Duke rally, save for rumblings he may have overheard from the adults in the community.

“I wasn’t old enough to process what it meant,” Vicente said.

But in college he began putting together the pieces of his adopted hometown’s history; one he was shielded from as an immigrant child.

“When I did learn about it, I wasn’t surprised that it had happened or that there were people in the community who invited David Duke to come to Siler City. Even now, that tension is still there.”

Latino families who scratch out a living working in poultry plants are also at their mercy. In November 2017, when Mountaire Farms took over the shuttered Townsend property, the company also purchased Johnson’s Mobile Home Park, adjacent to the plant.

By May of 2018 Mountaire sent eviction notices to the 28 families on that property; many owned their mobile homes. Dubester’s nonprofit organization — The Hispanic Liaison — stepped in and after months of negotiations with Chatham County officials and the company, a settlement of $10,190 per family was reached.

“That was such a particularly unique opportunity,” Dubester said. “And thanks to (the families’) courage to stick their necks out we were able to do what we did.”

Today, Mountaire Farms workers are turning to The Hispanic Liaison for support, as well as to Vicente, who helped the nonprofit organize those same families in Johnson Mobile Home Park. But public pressure proves more difficult than ever amid workers fearing for their health and, at the same time, potential retaliation from their employer if they ask for better protections and pay.

“There have been sadly so few workers willing to come forward,” Dubester said. “Organizing is challenging in normal times, even in a place like Siler City where the community is close-knit. A lot more people are afraid of sticking their necks out.”

Outbreaks across the state

The outbreak surrounding the Mountaire processing plant isn’t an isolated incident. Although the state Department of Health and Human Services won’t divulge the number of workers infected with the coronavirus at individual plants, it does report the number of cases at the plants statewide.

As of Wednesday, state officials reported 2,146 cases in 28 processing plants in 18 counties. That represents nearly 10 percent of all confirmed coronavirus cases in North Carolina.

In the 28328 zip code that includes a Smithfield Foods plant in Clinton, 254 people have contracted COVID-19. In the 28365 zip code that includes a Butterball plant in Mt. Olive, 204 people have tested positive. Butterball is in Duplin County, which has the highest ratio of cases per capita of anywhere in the state — 120 out of 10,000.

Cases aren’t extremely high in other ZIP codes that contain processing plants, but they are still higher than most. In the Wilkesboro ZIPcode, which includes a Tyson Foods plant, 126 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. Tyson earlier this month tested almost all of its more than 2,000 plant workers and found that 570 had the virus.

That suggests many workers live in nearby communities, potentially spreading the virus to those areas. During a news conference last week, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said the growing number of cases in neighboring Forsyth County is due partly to the Tyson plant. The high number of infected workers caused Tyson to temporarily shut down so the plant could be thoroughly disinfected.

The working class

But it isn’t just workers of processing plants that are getting sick, said Brian Toomey, the chief executive of Piedmont Health, which provides health clinics in Siler City and throughout the state.

It’s the working poor, Toomey said.

In April, Piedmont Health partnered with state officials and the National Guard to test 356 Mountaire workers and their family members for the virus over two days in mid-April. Of those, 74 tested positive — or 21 percent.

But Toomey said test results over a much longer period at four Piedmont health clinics — in Siler City, Moncure, Carrboro and Burlington — found a higher percentage of infected people in the general population — 32 percent of the nearly 1,200 tested.

We see a tent amid cones that are directing cars into a line. The tent is for testing people for COVID-19
Members of the National Guard worked with Piedmont Health and the Chatham County Health Department to test 356 Mountaire Farms workers and their family members in April on the grounds of the plant in Siler City. Photo credit: NC National Guard

“It’s the working poor community who live in congregate housing, and in that section (of Siler City) it’s a lot of Latinos,” Toomey said. “It has hit that group hard, and most of it in this situation was because one person gets sick and shared a living environment. There’s no space for you to go into your own private room to quarantine from everybody else. So that’s one of the ways it’s affected this population of working class in a very different way.”

Toomey told a story of three farmers who went to a Piedmont Health clinic to get tested for the coronavirus. The tests confirmed that all three farmers had the virus. Health officials then went to test the farmworkers at one of the farmer’s properties, in Lee County. Nineteen of those workers tested positive, he said.

Toomey told another story, about a father who took his 11-day-old baby into a clinic. The baby tested positive for the virus. The mother never exhibited any symptoms, Toomey said.

Those types of stories have become common in and around Siler City.

Slade, the advocate for the Neighbor2Neighbor program, said a man suffering from the coronavirus learned that his sister had died about two hours earlier from the coronavirus. Slade said she suggested that the man go outside, look at the stars and think about his sister.

The man declined the advice, she said. He was under quarantine and was told that he could not leave his home.

His sister lives about two hours away, and he won’t be able to attend her funeral.

“His sister died and he can’t go see her,” Slade said. “Sad stuff.”

‘Good corporate citizen’

For nearly 20 years, Mountaire Farms and its workers at a plant in the Robeson County town of Lumber Bridge have doled out thousands of free meals at Thanksgiving to the less fortunate. That tradition has carried over to the year-old Siler City plant.

It’s just one of myriad ways that the company has been a good corporate citizen, said Vickie Newell, director of Chatham Literacy, one of the nonprofits that has helped to organize the Chatham Solidarity Fund.

Newell said Mountaire, Siler City’s largest private employer, has helped Habitat for Humanity build houses in the county. The company has worked with the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Salvation Army, she said.

“The biggest way I think that probably their workers or the community benefit from them is through nonprofits,” Newell said. “I mean they support plenty of nonprofits through sponsorship. I don’t know if they give direct grants to people but I know they’re always sponsoring, and by that I mean giving money so that nonprofits can go out and do the work that we do in the community, to make it better.”

Anti-immigrant tensions

Dubester sees irony in that. Ron Cameron, Mountaire’s CEO, was President Donald Trump’s fifth-largest contributor in the 2016 presidential election, donating $2 million. Dubester said Mountaire has never donated to The Hispanic Liaison.

She is also irked by the refusal of Mountaire and state health officials to reveal how many plant workers have contracted the coronavirus.

State officials say it’s a matter of protecting employees’ privacy rights and retaining cooperation from the private industries.

Dubester disagrees.

“It affects our community response and our community education efforts. It makes it more dangerous and more risky for people still working there,” Dubester said. “It’s unconscionable that (DHHS is) not sharing. They need to stop protecting employers.”

Dubester said racial tension has always been just under the surface in Siler City. But when Trump got elected, she said, the tensions heightened. Trump’s policies on immigration haven’t helped, she said.

“Everybody’s experiencing microaggressions and overt statements and overt aggressions, not physical, thank goodness, that I know of,” Dubester said. “I experienced that and other people have in my community.”

Tense workers

As the coronavirus tightens its grip on the Mountaire plant, tensions are also mounting between the company and its workers.

Vicente, the community organizer, and a group of community members, including workers and many first-generation immigrants whose parents work at Mountaire Farms, started an online petition with a list of demands from workers.

The petition has been signed nearly 3,500 times, and a company representative is emailed every time a signature is added. The group set up a hotline last week so that workers can speak to Vicente and other community organizers whom they trust about their concerns around safety and their rights on the job, especially the contract workers.

“People are afraid in general,” Vicente said. “The people contracting them are abusing them by not giving them their promised vacation time, not paying them the same amount that Mountaire Farms is paying the workers.”

Vicente hopes that with testimonies collected via the hotline, they can better understand the issues at Mountaire. He wants to use the information to make clear demands so the company will better serve its workers, especially during the pandemic.

we see an industrial complex / poultry plantwhere multiple workers have tested positive for COVID-19
The 40-acre Mountaire Farms complex in Siler City employs almost 1,800 people. Photo credit: Victoria Bouloubasis

“Mountaire should offer paid leave to every single worker with the promise that they will pay them for the duration of a period that is safe for workers to stay home,” Vicente said, “and not have them make the decision of either coming to work or losing their jobs.”

The tension between workers and employers isn’t isolated to Mountaire. Similar rifts are occuring at Smithfield Foods, at Tyson Foods, at Butterball and at other meat and poultry processing companies across the country.

Many of those plants have already experienced temporary shutdowns caused by the coronavirus. Like Mountaire, many have also experienced a significant decrease in production as workers get sick or just decide it’s better to stay home. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, 11,000 workers at just three companies — Smithfield, Tyson and JBS – have been stricken by the virus.

Meanwhile the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has confirmed to the News & Observer that farmers around the state have started euthanizing more than 1.5 million chickens as capacity at processing plants has slowed.

A report last week from CoBank, a cooperative serving rural America, found that the national supply of meat could soon shrink by 35 percent and prices could spike by 20 percent.

On May 8, the NC Justice Center, the state AFL-CIO and the Western North Carolina Workers Center held a news conference demanding that state officials do everything in their power to better protect workers at meat and poultry processing plants.“The way we protect our food supply is to protect our meatpacking workers, but unfortunately there seems to be more concern about satisfying our hunger for meat than taking care

of our workers,” said MaryBe MacMillan, president of the state AFL-CIO. “We cannot risk workers’ lives for burgers, bacon or blue jeans.”

As COVID races through Mountaire Farms poultry plant, workers deemed vital feel dispensable

As COVID races through Mountaire Farms poultry plant, workers deemed vital feel dispensable - North Carolina Health News

Mountaire criticized for moving too slowly to protect workers who weren’t aware of coronavirus cases in workplace.

By Victoria Bouloubasis and Greg Barnes

This story is being co-published with Enlace Latino NC. Read it here in Spanish.

On a rapidly moving production line at Mountaire Farms in Siler City, Ana uses a sharp knife to slice the wings off a chicken in less than two seconds, making sure they land into a bin without any mess.

In the swift motion she makes to lift and extend her arm to make a cut, Ana must avoid bumping elbows with the worker beside her. Her body stays clenched for hours as she repeats this task 32 to 36 times a minute, thousands of times a day.

Ana, who asked that her real name not be used, worries about the news: coronavirus outbreaks at jobs like hers are skyrocketing, and workers are dying, such as Adelfo Ruiz, 65, a worker at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Lee County.

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But Ana and thousands of others who work at meat and poultry plants scattered throughout North Carolina say they have little choice but to keep working. They have families to feed, households to maintain and other obligations to meet — all on a low-wage income.

The federal government has also declared them essential workers, a vital cog in the nation’s food supply chain. Without the workers, there would be no meat or poultry on grocery store shelves. Mountaire Farms is the sixth-largest poultry processing company in the United States, processing about 400 million chickens a year, according to a spokesperson.

But their work comes at a heavy cost. The meatpacking plants have become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, spreading rapidly among the nearly 1,800 workers in Siler City and into the surrounding communities.

On May 20, Tyson Foods announced that 570 workers at its poultry processing plant in Wilkesboro had tested positive for COVID-19 — more than a quarter of the plant’s workforce.  Most of the workers who tested positive had shown no symptoms, according to a company statement.

The virus has swept through Mountaire, Tyson and 27 other meatpacking and poultry processing plants in North Carolina. That’s more plants than in any other state in the country, according to a report published May 19 by the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

North Carolina ranks third in the nation for the highest number of meatpacking workers who have contracted COVID-19. As of May 27, 2,146 cases had been confirmed in 28 outbreaks at meat-processing plants in 18 counties: Bertie, Bladen, Burke, Chatham, Davie, Duplin, Hoke, Lee, Lenoir, Randolph, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Surry, Union, Wayne, Wilkes and Wilson.

Many, if not most, of those infected meatpacking workers are Latino immigrants who for decades have been drawn to North Carolina to do the grueling work that few others are willing to do.

And perhaps nowhere in the state has the virus struck harder or had the most debilitating impact as it has in Siler City, where Latinos comprise nearly 43 percent of the population.

photo shows a central store or Tienda Centrol in Siler City with its windows full of colorful signs in Spanish
Siler City’s Latinos make up 43% of the town’s population. Several downtown storefronts are home to tiendas and Spanish-language churches. Photo credit: Victoria Bouloubasis

In a single ZIP code that includes Siler City and Mountaire Farms, 414 of the 18,798 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, state figures show. That’s the highest per capita rate of any ZIP code in North Carolina.

Mountaire and the state Department of Health and Human Services won’t say how many workers at the Mountaire plant have contracted the virus. Despite repeated requests, DHHS refuses to identify the processing plants that are experiencing outbreaks or how many workers at those plants have COVID-19.

But a look at UNC Hospitals may provide a clue.

As the pandemic neared an early peak for hospitalizations, UNC spokesman Alan Wolf said in an email, a third of all COVID-19 patients at the sprawling UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill were transported there from Chatham Hospital in Siler City.

An internal UNC Hospitals report provided anonymously to NC Health News shows that by mid-May, 41 percent of all patients treated for COVID-19 at UNC Health were Latino.

According to the U.S. Census, Latinos make up about 9 percent of the state’s population.

Slow to respond, share info

Mountaire and other processing plants in North Carolina have now taken some measures to keep their workers safe. All employees wear the same uniform, which now includes a protective face shield.  They have installed plexiglass barriers between production line workers, added hand-sanitation stations, extended sick leave, and taken other precautions. But the plants have also been criticized for moving too slowly to try to protect workers and for not being transparent.

In mid-April, Mountaire posted a bilingual notice at the plant saying three workers had tested positive for COVID-19, according to workers.

But the company had known four to six weeks earlier about those sick workers and didn’t notify anyone, said Ilana Dubester, founder of the nonprofit El Vinculo Hispano, or The Hispanic Liaison. A spokesperson for Mountaire said the company began “taking steps” in early March to begin safety and precautionary measures.

On April 23, shortly after the notice was posted, the National Guard and Piedmont Health tested Mountaire employees and their family members for the virus at a drive-thru clinic set up in the plant’s parking lot. Of the 356 people tested, 74 were confirmed to have the virus, said Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health.

In other words, 21 percent of the total tested had COVID-19.

Ana says she was among the few hundred tested that day, at a company with almost 1,800 employees. Mountaire declined to elaborate on how many of that number are contract workers.

Her results were negative; she continued working. Ana said no other details have been provided to her or any other Latino workers since the notice was posted.

photo shows the concrete walls and large tanks around the outside of the Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant in Siler City which has experienced coronavirus outbreaks
The 40-acre Mountaire Farms complex in Siler City employs almost 1,800 people. Photo credit: Victoria Bouloubasis

Transparency wanted

By the end of April, Ana said, she exhibited COVID-19 symptoms. At that point, she had heard through the grapevine of several more workers who subsequently had tested positive.

This worried Ana: she lives with her husband, who is currently out of work, and her elementary school-aged child. If anyone were to bring the virus home, it would be Ana. But the family also relies on her paycheck to cover their monthly expenses, which total roughly $1,200.

The lack of oversight and transparency at the company leaves workers like Ana confused about safety protocols and their ability to take paid leave if they get sick. Ana was not hired directly by Mountaire Farms, but instead by the independent contracting company NIPCAM.

When a doctor advised her to stay home for two weeks, Ana said, the company promised to pay her for a full 40-hour workweek. She said she was paid for only 16 hours.

Ana said her symptoms had subsided by the time she returned to work, but she noticed that many more of her coworkers were not showing up.

Eventually, Ana claimed, the production lines were cut by half. Normally, the de-boning floor consists of eight lines with 17 people working each one. It is now down to four lines, she said, yet the same amount of chicken is being processed with fewer workers. The purported claims that the meat supply is dwindling due to the pandemic is news to Ana, who said she is doing double the work to keep the product moving.

photo shows a red white and blue sign telling people where to apply for jobs at Mountaire farms
Mountaire Farms advertises job openings on a sign near its Siler City plant. Photo credit: Victoria Bouloubasis

When asked if any production lines have been cut at the Siler City factory, a Mountaire Farms spokesperson said, “We have had to make several changes to how we operate as a result of staffing issues, but overall our plants have been operating.”

“The chickens are very fat and there are so many now,” Ana said. “Imagine doing this over and over, all day. And if you miss one (chicken) a supervisor will angrily come over to you.”

‘What we pay you for’

Ana said she has witnessed a few workers get yelled at for asking to take a break. Last week, she recalled one man who told a supervisor his hands were hurting and his joints felt stuck.

The supervisor forced him to continue and said “this is what we pay you for,” Ana said. “That makes me really angry. But I can’t do anything for them. I sometimes want to defend my people, but then I’ll get myself into trouble.”

Ana suspects that the majority of the workers still on the production floor are fellow contract employees, those without company benefits or health insurance. According to Alvaro Villaveces, who owns NIPCAM, his company contracts 300 employees to Mountaire Farms.

“A bunch of people are not going to work, but that’s a hard call because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” Dubester said. “Some temporary [contract] workers basically have been told that [they are] dispensable.”

An extra dollar

For Maricela Martinez, that’s exactly what happened.

In early April she was contracted by NIPCAM for a three-month gig at Mountaire to work with five other new housekeepers hired to clean during the pandemic. After her husband suffered a recent back injury that kept him out of work, Martinez welcomed a job that was less physically strenuous than the construction demolition work she did before. Martinez hoped to work at the plant beyond the three-month contract, maintaining their single-income household at $11.70 per hour.

During the first month of work Martinez was given a dollar raise for “doing a good job,” along with 10 pounds of chicken at no cost. She wants to go back to her job because she needs it. But she says contract workers aren’t given the same benefits as workers directly employed by Mountaire.

photo shows the outside of a building in Siler City that is decorated with a colorful mural showing people of different ethnicities
A mural in downtown Siler City invites residents to celebrate diversity despite a recent history that includes a protest by the Ku Klux Klan. Photo credit: Victoria Bouloubasis

In an email, a Mountaire spokesperson said all workers are paid between $12 and $14 an hour. But, according to a check paid to Martinez through NIPCAM, the contracting company, she makes $11.70 per hour. Ana said her hourly wage is $11.40, which is in line with what Dubester hears from workers, too.

According to Villaveces, the NIPCAM owner, Mountaire sets the pay rate and NIPCAM charges Mountaire a percentage above. He said Mountaire sets the hourly rate lower for contract workers to “give them an incentive to come to work for them directly. They don’t want to have contractors.”

“It’s in our best interest to make sure that all of these people are protected and healthy to work. If not, this whole thing breaks down,” he maintained. “We spend a lot of time making sure workers are happy because they are a very scarce commodity. The idea that we can mistreat these people does not exist.”

“You can’t have two sets of rules inside the processing plant. The workers need to feel like they are part of the team. If they are not part of that, it becomes complete chaos,” he said. “Worker morale is very important to us.”

Both Ana and Martinez, however, say contract workers are generally confused about their benefits, which are not clearly communicated to them by NIPCAM or Mountaire.

Villaveces, who does not live in North Carolina, says that the people who work with him on the ground in Siler City communicate directly with poultry plant employees and that the employees will be paid for every day they miss if they prove they test positive for the coronavirus.

That wasn’t Martinez’s experience.

On April 23, after a temperature check at work, Martinez was sent home for five days. She says she was among 15 workers who had an above-normal temperature. She didn’t exhibit any other symptoms, but her husband did two days later.

They went to the hospital on April 25 and he tested positive for COVID-19. Martinez was asked to come back to work but explained to the subcontractor that the doctor (who hadn’t tested her) recommended she stay home a total of two weeks since her husband tested positive. For this, Martinez said, she was fired.

Despite the risk of speaking out, Martinez has used her real name, here and in other news stories.

“I want to talk because everything I am saying is true,” she said.

Martinez wants to work a job that gives everyone paid time off — especially during a pandemic.

“Deep down, we (contract workers) knew we weren’t going to be given anything,” she said.

Coronavirus Today – May 7 – Case numbers rise as state preps for partial reopening

Coronavirus Today – May 7 – Case numbers rise as state preps for partial reopening - North Carolina Health News

Social distancing restrictions being eased as COVID-19 lab confirmed cases rise, but the hike doesn’t warrant reversing course, officials say.

By North Carolina Health News staff

Opening too soon?

North Carolina saw its largest daily jump in lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 a day before social distancing restrictions will be eased slightly.

The Thursday count was 639 more positive cases than Wednesday, pushing the state to a total of 13,397 lab-confirmed cases across 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

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Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, was asked whether the hike in cases concerned her given that many state parks will be opening over the weekend with more people hiking and visiting outdoor areas.

“We did have our largest day over day increases,” Cohen said. “We continue to watch these trends closely. As you know, we were already trending up in our case numbers. When we earlier in the week put together our overall look at where we are in North Carolina, our scorecard, if you will, there was already a red X on cases. We knew we were trending up. For me, as I think about whether we are ready to ease restrictions, we really have to look at the full picture of all of those metrics.”

Cohen and her team consider more than only the total number of positive cases. She has said they’re weighing that number against the percentage of positives among all the people getting tested.

“We know that we have been ramping up our testing, we’re doing more testing,” Cohen said. “Yesterday was something like 8,000 new tests, and you saw a percent positive of that stay pretty low. Six percent, seven percent for day over day.”

Given the limitations of too few testing supplies and personal protective equipment in the early weeks of the pandemic, North Carolina was not doing as much testing as public health officials wanted. Tests were reserved for those with severe symptoms, as well as workers on the front lines working in health care facilities, emergency management and other critical roles.

Now, Cohen and her team are encouraging anyone who thinks they might have the virus to get tested after calling their doctor or county health departments.

“We know we are not perfect,” Cohen said. “We know this virus is here with us. That is why as we move forward, we didn’t say let’s throw open everything all at once. We said we have to take a measured approach.”

The modified stay-at-home order that takes effect at 5 p.m. Friday allows people to leave their homes for more retail options, such as bookstores, flower shops or clothing outlets where customers will be standing mostly and not sitting in close proximity to anyone for more than 10 minutes.

Parks also are permitted to reopen. The modified order encourages them to do so but does not require it.

When out and about, Cohen and her team remind people to follow the three Ws: wear face coverings, wait six feet apart from one another, and wash their hands. The more vulnerable — those with underlying conditions making them more likely to get serious complications from the virus or people 65 and older — should weigh their personal risk factors before venturing out.

“We want folks to get exercise and get outside,” Cohen said in response to reports that trailheads and parks might be crowded over the weekend. “If you go to a park and you notice it’s very crowded and that makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe there’s another spot for you to check out, to explore.

“I really hope that we can all be good neighbors and citizens to each other,” she added. “If we see there’s a narrowing in a path, you know, step over to the side, let folks pass and try not to be gathering close together. I’ve seen that collegiality already here just as I walk on the greenway here in Raleigh or down the sidewalk in my neighborhood.” — Anne Blythe

Federal relief money flows to health providers statewide

Hospitals and health care providers across the state will get some federal relief for their losses courtesy of the federal government.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress in late March and signed into law by President Donald Trump, has about $100 billion in assistance for hospitals and public health agencies.

In the first wave of payments to hospitals, an initial $30 billion has made its way to states. About $12 billion went to almost 400 hospitals across the country that had provided for more than 100 patients through April 10. In North Carolina, that was four hospitals receiving a total of about $79 million.

The bill also mandated payments to hospitals that treat a high percentage of low income and uninsured patients. In North Carolina, that meant an additional influx of almost $30 million to hospitals meeting those criteria.

Finally, the bill stipulated funding for rural hospitals hard hit by the need to suspend elective procedures and located in areas where residents are typically older, poorer, less well-insured and have more pre-existing conditions. For North Carolina, that meant $282 million went to 254 rural entities providing care, including rural acute care general hospitals and Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs), rural health clinics and community health centers.

This map shows the total allocations coming to North Carolina by Congressional delegation. (For example, a hospital system operating across the state or across several districts may have received a lump sum to the billing organization located in one congressional district, even though the providers are operating across several districts.) – Rose Hoban

Contact tracing contract questions

When Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen announced a partnership last month with Community Care of North Carolina and the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers for the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative, she said extensive COVID-19 tracing would be important in the months ahead.

In the first day alone, some 1,000 people applied for the 250 jobs that will be spread out across the state. Tracers will call people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus to let them know of a need to get tested. In some cases, tracers might have to visit the homes of people who can’t be contacted by phone or other remote ways.

A question arose about the contract and the vetting process used to assign it to Community Care of North Carolina and North Carolina AHEC, a network of centers that provide continuing education to health care providers, along with clinical support and guidance for health professionals and facilities.

Hugh Tilson, the husband of Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, the state health director, has been the North Carolina AHEC director since 2018.

Cohen said Elizabeth Tilson was not involved with the selection process nor did she make any recommendations.

North Carolina Health News asked for a copy of the contract on Thursday after questions arose at a media briefing, but has not yet received a response from DHHS.

“The way this organization was selected was through an evaluation committee that looked at a submission of their proposal for the state of North Carolina,” Cohen said. “I believe we compared at least two different organizations that were able to serve all of North Carolina.”

Cohen outlined how the process worked during the briefing and said her team has not yet determined which funds would be used to support the collaborative’s work, saying they were looking at pandemic relief aid provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or at a portion of the $1.5 billion in federal aid to be allocated by the General Assembly.

“We haven’t decided,” Cohen said.

Important to Cohen and her team were to have tracers that could be hired in the communities where they lived or were familiar.

DHHS also was looking for partners with experience working with local health departments that were also familiar with DHHS data systems. 

“We had a number of organizations that said, ‘Oh, you know, we can serve the west. We can serve the east. We can serve central. We were really looking for a partner that submitted a proposal that could serve the full of the state,” Cohen said. “We asked for them to have experience working with our local health departments, as well as our data systems because we needed to get going so quickly.”

The evaluation committee was formed under the department’s head of procurement. The committee, Cohen said, considered proposals based on the criteria outlined by DHHS.

Cohen said she welcomed questions about the process or scrutiny of the selection.

“I welcome the transparency on this effort,” Cohen said. “Dr. Tilson is obviously an incredibly important member of our team, but she was very aware that she did not want to have any violations of ethics here so she was definitely not part of the selection committee nor the evaluation process. 

“So we welcome answering any questions about that going forward.” — Anne Blythe

DHHS list shows more NC skilled nursing facilities with COVID-19 cases, deaths 

State health officials added more than a dozen North Carolina skilled nursing homes with COVID-19 infection during the past week, including facilities from Northampton to Henderson counties posting the same low staffing levels as seen in other centers with outbreaks.

A notable exception came with a report that 13 residents and nine employees contracted the virus at UNC REX Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center of Apex. Instead of the below-average staffing ratio among most infected nursing homes in the state, the Apex center scored top rankings overall and in staffing levels with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

“The staff members caring for these residents have been trained on CDC guidelines and are following proper medical procedures,” said UNC REX spokesman Alan Wolf. “They are working closely with experts from UNC Health, the Wake County Public Health Department and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.”

An additional nursing home listed represented the seventh outbreak in the state in a facility owned by Saber Healthcare. Saber, an Ohio firm, has the most North Carolina facilities with reported COVID-19 cases. The Saber-owned Autumn Care of Cornelius reported 60 cases and 17 deaths related to the virus, an increase of seven cases and seven deaths over prior reports.

The largest increase in overall cases came from Grace Heights, a nursing home in Burke County, with six reported deaths and 67 cases, an increase from 55 cases last week.

Four facilities owned or managed by Kinston-based Principle Long Term Care were listed for the first time. They were Harnett Woods Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Harnett County; Northampton Rich Square Nursing and Rehabilitation, Northampton County; Ayden Court, Pitt County; and Kerr Lake Nursing and Rehabilitation, Vance County.

The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 28 COVID-19 cases and two deaths at the four Principle-connected skilled nursing homes. The N.C. facilities added in the past week were listed as having 260 new cases and 19 deaths.

DHHS will present any additional facility names and death counts at a 4 p.m. press conference Friday. — Thomas Goldsmith

Will swimming pools be open?

As it gets warmer across North Carolina, some wonder whether swimming pools will be open in the weeks and months ahead.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said that while pools will remain closed in the first phase of easing social distancing restrictions, her team was looking into whether they could be open in the following phase, which could begin as early as May 22.

The concern, she said, is people sitting around the pool and how to maintain social distancing out of the water. — Anne Blythe

In the meantime, keep up with vaccinations

During the pandemic, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, wants everyone to make sure they stay up with immunization schedules, particularly for children.

“I know parents may be wondering and trying to figure out how best to keep their children and families safe during all of this,” Cohen said. “Many pediatric practices and family medicine practices have made adjustments to minimize risks, like asking people to call and wait in their cars so that they can go straight to an exam room when it’s ready and to avoid the waiting room entirely.”

Diseases such as measles and mumps remain a threat to children, and vaccines make them preventable.

“I encourage you to call your doctor or clinician or call your local health department to talk about how to safely stay on schedule for all of those important vaccines,” Cohen said. — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday morning:

  • 507 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 13,397 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 525 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with coronavirus on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • More than 171,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed coronavirus tests is likely higher.
  • Most of the cases (42 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 22 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 86 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 108 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,582 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 745 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Federal government rolls out portal for COVID-19 testing and care of uninsured patients

Beginning this week health care providers and hospitals can request reimbursements for treating and testing uninsured patients with COVID-19 through a new portal, NCDHHS announced today.

The federal government earmarked $1 billion for COVID-19 testing of uninsured people and additional funds for treatment. To access the funds, providers must treat or test eligible patients for free and request reimbursement after the fact. To support providers in the state, North Carolina Medicaid has also compiled a list of all the available federal funding. -Liora Engel-Smith

Cumberland County food giveaway hits capacity before it can start

The reaction Thursday from Cumberland County residents to a free-food program must have stunned organizers. Within 1 1/2 hours from the time the program was set to start, county officials announced that capacity had been met.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina had planned to give away 30,000 pounds of food — the equivalent of 25,000 meals — in the parking lot of the Crown Complex beginning at 10 a.m. By 8:30 am, county officials said in an email, the number of people waiting in line would exhaust the organization’s entire food supply.

Second Harvest was working with the N.C. National Guard, Team Rubicon and Cumberland County Emergency Management to distribute food that is expected to provide meals to an estimated 1,200 people for about a week.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 17 percent of the county’s residents were living in poverty last year, compared with about 12 percent nationally. The Fayetteville metro area was tied with Rocky Mount for the highest unemployment rate in the state at 5.5 percent in March, according to the latest figures available from the N.C. Department of Commerce. Many more workers have lost their jobs since then.

People still needing food are asked to call Second Harvest at 910-485-6923 or visit its web site, hungercantwait.org, to learn more about available food pantries near them that can assist. -Greg Barnes

Caregivers okay to be with disabled loved ones in hospitals, state says 

After families around the state reported being unable to stay with their significantly disabled family members in the hospital, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a bulletin reminding hospitals of people’s rights to have a caregiver accompany them. 

 N.C. Health News wrote about this earlier this week, sharing the plight of one Mount Airy mother who was unable to be by the side of her disabled son when he died in early April at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. 

 The NC DHHS bulletin, issued Wednesday night through the state’s Medicaid program, states that visitor restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic should make exceptions for caregivers of those with cognitive issues. The bulletin noted the rights people have under the Americans for Disabilities Act and other civil rights legislation.  

 “For individuals with a cognitive impairment or intellectual disability, it is important to ensure the individual has adequate support for decision making and treatment,” the NCDHHS directive states. “These individuals may need to have a caregiver accompany them in either the ambulance or in the hospital.”

 While glad to see NCDHHS weigh in, the directive may not go far enough, said John Nash, the executive director of The Arc of North Carolina, an organization that supports those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

 “We don’t feel that it is strong enough and our fear is that this will continue to happen,” Nash said. 

 He’s worried hospitals will continue to make case-by-case decisions, and some families will still be shut out. Families that face resistance to accompany disabled loved ones should contact The Arc of NC, Disability Rights North Carolina or NCDHHS, Nash said.  – Sarah Ovaska 

Mental Health Moment – Tour Kew Gardens

One of the world’s greatest, and well-known, botanical gardens, Kew is part of England’s Royal Botanical Gardens. Located on the outskirts of London on 326 acres (there’s even a palace on the grounds), the gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Kew Gardens and Wakehurst (located an hour away) have a grand total of approximately 27,000 taxa of plants, over 8 million specimens of plants and fungal herbarium, and a seed bank that contains more than 40,000 species.

The crown jewels of Kew are the old glass houses, constructed during the Victorian era. These towering steel and glass structures include the Waterlily House, the Palm House and the fabulous Temperate House, home to more than 1,200 species of plants. 

If you really want to escape for a while, their YouTube channel is wonderful.

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