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570 Workers Test Positive For Coronavirus At North Carolina Poultry Plant

A quarter of the employees — 570 workers — at this Tyson poultry processing facility in Wilkesboro, N.C., have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Keri Brown
A quarter of the employees — 570 workers — at this Tyson poultry processing facility in Wilkesboro, N.C., have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meat processing plants across the country are struggling with outbreaks of the coronavirus. That includes the Tyson Foods chicken processing facility in Wilkes County, N.C.

More than 2,200 workers were tested at the Wilkesboro plant, and 570 were positive for the coronavirus. Tyson said a majority of the workers who had the virus didn't show any symptoms.

The outbreaks have happened despite Tyson temporarily closing parts of the facility for deep cleaning and worker absences related to quarantines and other factors. The company says it plans to ramp up operations again this week.

Ken Noland is the town manager of Wilkesboro. He said local officials are doing all they can in a difficult situation.

"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," Noland said.

This is the second time this month the plant has temporarily halted operations. It was closed for cleaning earlier this month after a suspected outbreak. Previously, the Wilkes County Health Department tested 200 workers on-site, and 39 were positive for the virus. Tyson also tested hundreds of employees on-site and didn't release those results until Wednesday.

The company said several new safety measures have been put in place at the Wilkesboro site. Those include plastic dividers between workstations, daily temperature checks with thermal scans, even tents outside for more break room social distancing space. But some of these measures were already in place and didn't stop this latest outbreak.

Labor advocates have said the industry isn't doing enough to protect workers in these kinds of facilities and many employees aren't confident in these protections to return to work.

The company also has temporarily idled plants in other states including Iowa, Indiana and Nebraska. And Tyson's not alone. Meat and poultry processing plants have become coronavirus hot spots throughout the U.S. Smithfield Foods and Hormel Foods are among those that have shuttered plants because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

"We are working closely with local health departments to protect our team members and their families, and to help manage the spread of the virus in our communities," Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods, said in a press release. "We are using the most up-to-date data and resources to support our team members, and we are committed to ensuring they feel safe and secure when they come to work."

Tyson is the largest employer in Wilkes County and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy each year.

Tyson said workers who test positive for the virus will receive paid sick leave. The Wilkesboro plant is among 30 production facilities in the U.S. where the company is rolling out additional COVID-19 testing and on-site medical services for workers.

Copyright 2020 88.5 WFDD - Public Radio For The Piedmont

Keri Brown is a reporter and host at WFDD. She comes to the Triad from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, where she served as the Chief Bureau Reporter for the Northern Panhandle. Prior to her time at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Keri was the head assignment editor at WTRF-TV in Wheeling and a field producer and assignment manager at WPGH Fox 53 in Pittsburgh. She is a graduate of Ohio University.