By Regina Holmes
The outbreak of COVID-19 infections among Delmarva poultry workers could threaten not only the tri-state area but also the nation’s food supply chain, Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday.
There are at least 262 confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with poultry workers in Maryland, Hogan said. He said those infections are partly the reason why “the case rate per 100,000 [people] in Wicomico County is now the fifth-highest in the state, nearly equal to Baltimore City and higher than Baltimore County.
“These outbreaks are not only a serious public health concern; they’re also a potential threat to Maryland’s leading agricultural industry and to our nation’s essential food-supply chain,” Hogan said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the State House in Annapolis.
The governor said that after he learned of the outbreaks, he alerted Vice President Mike Pence in a phone call on Friday. Pence agreed to have Dr. Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Infection follow up, Hogan said.
Hogan said he spoke to Delaware Gov. John Carney and Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northram in a conference call with 15 other governors whose states have meat-processing plants.
Hogan said he, Carney and Northram sent a letter to the president “detailing the urgency of the situation and requesting federal assistance.”
State epidemiologists have been dispatched to the affected Delmarva areas to focus on testing support, contract tracing, occupational health, communications and outreach, Hogan said.
He said the state is opening a COVID-19 testing site at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury for workers at the Perdue chicken processing plant in Salisbury and the Amick plant in Hurlock.
“We have deployed a Maryland Incident Management Team to support this multi-agency and multi-state operation on the Delmarva peninsula,” Hogan said. “We anticipate that a CDC team will be on the ground later tonight providing assistance.”
The three governors also requested and have been granted a designated FEMA liaison “to help expedite other federal assistance,” Hogan said.
Chas Eby, deputy executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, is spearheading the state’s intensive effort, the governor said.
The coronavirus has interrupted production at meat and poultry plants in several states, due to the absenteeism of workers because of COVID-19 infections, fear of contracting the virus, or decreased demand for the products due to state shutdowns. The plants have been hit hard because many of the employees work side-by-side, making adherence to social distancing guidelines of staying at least six feet apart very difficult. Not all the plants have supplied protective equipment such as masks, according to employees who have appeared on various news programs.
Salisbury-based Perdue Farms said it has instructed its workers to maintain social-distancing guidelines in common areas and in some instances, on production lines. The company also said it is checking employees’ temperatures.
At least 20 meatpacking and food-processing workers have died from COVID-19 while at least 5,000 and 1,500, respectively, have been directly affected. Those employees who are directly affected include those who have tested positive for COVID-19, have been hospitalized, and/or are symptomatic, missed work due to self-quarantine, or are awaiting test results, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday used the Defense Production Act to order poultry and meat plants to continue operating and, if closed, reopen. Trump said the processing plants are critical infrastructure to the nation’s food supply. Despite growing concerns about shortages of meats and poultry, the president said supplies are fine but distribution is the issue.
UFCW, the nation’s largest private-sector union, responded to the president’s order by calling for the prioritization of the safety of the meatpacking workers.
“Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers,” UCFW President Marc Perrone said in a statement released Tuesday. “We urge the Administration to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected.”
Perrone also called for federal inspectors to constantly monitor the plants.
The UFCW statement said that at least 22 meatpacking plants have closed – union and non-union plants – at some point in March and April. “These closures have resulted in over 35,000 workers impacted and a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.”
Many meat workers, anxious about their safety, reportedly were angered by the president’s executive order.
Among the following meat plants impacted by the coronavirus are the following:
Hormel Foods said on Tuesday that it will be furloughing 150 of its 500 employees at Fontanini Foods in the Chicago suburb of McCook, Ill. Fontanini Foods supplies Italian meats and sausages to restaurants, hotels, stadiums and colleges. Most of those venues have been closed since the pandemic started, so the demand for those foods has practically disappeared. The furloughed workers will retain their health insurance. The company said there is no timeline for their return.
The state of Tennessee reported last week that at least 120 Tyson Foods employees at a plant in Goodlettsville have tested positive for COVID-19.
Tyson Foods suspended operations at its Waterloo, Iowa pork processing plant on April 22. The company attributed the decision to COVID-19 infections among workers, high absenteeism partly due to employees who feared getting infected, and public pressure. More than a dozen elected officials in Iowa had called for Tyson to close the facility, the company’s biggest pork plant.
Tyson Foods temporarily closed its pork plant in Logansport, Ind., on Saturday so that more than 2,200 workers at the facility can be tested for COVID-19.
Hogan appears on “The Daily Show”
In an appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” Wednesday night, Hogan praised the cooperation between both sides of the aisle that he has seen during the pandemic.
“I’ve never seen the kind of bipartisanship that I’ve been seeing lately,” the governor told host Trevor Noah. Hogan noted that Congress “had passed four stimulus bills when it usually takes ten years to pass a bill.”
Hogan said Maryland revealed “a very detailed plan” on Friday that outlines the strategy for a “safe, effective and gradual reopening.”
Meanwhile, he said, “We’re fighting this virus and trying to save lives.”
Feature photo: Perdue chicken processing plant (File photo courtesy of Perdue Farms)
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