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How The Coronavirus Made Its Way Through Meatpacking Plants

Tyson processing plant
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The Tyson chicken processing plant in Wilkesboro has been the site of a coronavirus outbreak.

Meatpacking plants have become hotspots for the coronavirus. More than 2,500 workers at 27 plants throughout the state have now tested positive for the virus. That includes nearly 600 workers at a Tyson chicken plan in Wilkesboro.

A recent ProPublica story looked at that plant and others across the country with outbreaks and found that confusion over who regulates the plants contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. Michael Grabell reported that story. He joins us now.

Michael Grabell: Good morning, it's a pleasure to be here.

Lisa Worf: So first, why have meatpacking plants become such hot spots for the coronavirus?

Grabell: What we know is that workers are often working shoulder to shoulder on a processing line where there isn't room for social distancing. In addition to that, these plants have continued operating, in many cases at the same rate as before the virus hit. Whereas in other locations, everyone is being told to stay at home, to social distance. This is a job where the workers can't work from home.

Worf: At the Tyson plant in Wilkesboro, it took the threat of penalties for local public health officials to get much information about the outbreak. Why was that so hard?

Grabell: So at the Wilkesboro plant, county officials had been doing some testing and had seen cases roll in of workers testing positive for the virus. Shortly after, Tyson took over the testing, they hired a private company to take over the testing. And at that point, the county stopped getting information that it needed to basically do its job to ensure that workers and people who they had close contact with weren't going around the community, spreading it to others.

There was kind of what sounds like a communication breakdown where the county epidemiologist didn't receive information for nearly a week after Tyson's testing ended. And at that point, when they did receive information that was still missing phone numbers, they couldn't even call and follow up to make sure infected workers had been told what to do to protect themselves and the community and to find out who their contacts were to make sure that they were also quarantining.

Worf: Now, Tyson has said when the company learned there was a delay with its lab partner, it worked "to address the situation immediately," but what did that delay mean for the health of workers at that plant and the public health of the region?

Grabell: Well, more for the community that some of these workers may have been walking around in the community, not realizing that they were infected and potentially shedding the virus and infecting others.

Worf: What kind of sway did local public health officials have?

Grabell: So local public health officials had very little sway. The county health director there in one of the emails we obtained for the story said that they had no regulatory authority over Tyson. They couldn't tell them what changes to make or order them to shut down.

Worf: And why all that confusion?

Grabell: That's a good question. That's one that we're still trying to answer. But there's really a lack of clarity as to who would oversee a meatpacking plant for a flu pandemic like the one we're having right now. The USDA has some authority, but it stops at animals and food. The CDC can only offer guidance. The Labor Department, OSHA would theoretically be in charge of ensuring worker safety, but they have very few rules that apply to a virus. And then for local state officials, it really varies from state to state. And there's only been a few cases where the local authorities have both had the power and the political will to order a plant to close down.

Worf: You found scenarios like this playing out with meatpacking plants across the country over questions about authority managing outbreaks. What are the lessons here?

Grabell: What the lessons is there, they're probably needed to be more coordination. We see over and over again public health officials overwhelmed by the amount of cases they're getting from the meatpacking plants. Meatpacking plants were largely unprepared for these outbreaks affecting their plants. And the system we have relies on local public health agencies in these rural areas that may have only a few employees, and they were the ones in charge of responding. In many, many cases, they were overwhelmed by that.

Worf: In the case of Tyson and others across the country, were they doing anything to limit the outbreaks within their plants?

Grabell: The most important thing is while governors were issuing these stay-at-home orders in mid-March, there weren't a lot of changes being made to encourage social distancing at the plant. It wasn't until mid-April, a month later, that companies started erecting Plexiglas barriers between workers in the line, trying to stagger them so that it could be six feet apart, slowing down processing lines. Those changes weren't made until outbreaks began to occur, and hundreds, if not thousands of workers had already been affected across the country.

Worf: And the level of coordination now between meatpacking plants and local public health officials, is that enough at this point?

Grabell: What I saw in emails was that some public health officials did develop good relationships with the plant nurse. Where communication started to break down was those nurses or local safety officials at the plant maybe didn't have the authority. It had to come from corporate. And so corporate would get involved with different policies and it would cause that breakdown or in the words of one of the local public health officials in Nebraska, "corporate gridlock."

Worf: That's Michael Grabell, a reporter for ProPublica. Thanks, Mr. Grabell.

Grabell: Thank you for bringing attention to this story.

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