May 1, 2020
Hundreds of US state's poultry workers test positive for COVID-19
According to Georgia Department of Public Health statistics obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, almost 400 workers in Georgia's poultry sector have tested positive for coronavirus, while one has died from the illness.
The 388 workers who have been sickened by COVID-19 represent about 2% of the estimated 16,500 people employed at 14 chicken processing plants across the state.
Obtained from hospitals and poultry plants, the data do not identify the workers or say where they contracted COVID-19. But the head of Baldwin-based Fieldale Farms said a 63-year-old Hispanic man with "other health issues" who worked at the company's chicken plant in Cornelia died from the disease this month. Many immigrants and refugees work in the state's poultry industry.
"The biggest challenge for these employees is the community widespread transmission in the areas where they live, the lack of education about COVID-19, and reluctance to change behaviors," said Georgia Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam, adding that her agency has received many anecdotal reports of people attending large social gatherings, house parties and religious services."Also, most live in multi-generational homes with large numbers of family members (12-14 persons)," she said. "They have no place to self-isolate if they are sick with COVID-19 and the whole family ends up getting sick."
News of the illnesses comes as President Donald Trump is vowing to prevent food shortages by ensuring America's meat and poultry processors "continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible." He signed a related executive order Tuesday.
Nationwide, at least 20 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 5,000 have been hospitalised for it or are showing symptoms of the disease, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Meanwhile, 22 meatpacking plants have closed during the last two months, resulting in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% drop in beef slaughter capacity, the union said.
Georgia's US$41 billion poultry industry—it directly employs 45,591 people and is responsible for about 15% of the nation's poultry production—is racing to prevent such disruptions.
"Georgia's poultry producers have implemented extraordinary measures to protect employees from the COVID-19 virus while continuing to produce over 31 million pounds of chicken and seven million table eggs daily to restock the supply chains that feed people throughout the United States," said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
Giles highlighted the precautions Fieldale Farms has adopted at its chicken processing plants in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia. The employees who work there must don masks, wash their hands in disinfectant and have their temperatures checked before they can go to work each day, said Tom Hensley, president of the Baldwin-based company. Those with high temperatures are referred to a nurse, who asks them a series of questions to determine whether they should be tested for COVID-19. The workers sent home to be tested are paid while they are away.
Hensley said, among the plants' 4,000 workers, 87 have tested positive for COVID-19, while 15 have recovered and returned to their jobs.
"Inside the plant itself, we constantly disinfect all public areas, restrooms and breakrooms," Hensley said. "And there are dividers in between each workstation, so no one is breathing on anyone else. And it has worked.
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black toured the Fieldale plant in Gainesville Monday. King said he was impressed with the plant's "extraordinary efforts to take care of the workers."