North Carolina, Raleigh- The number of positive COVID-19 cases at ten North Carolina meatpacking plants was 75 percent higher than reported publicly, according to a new report released today by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).
Through public records requests, FERN and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation obtained internal emails among NCDHHS and county health department officials that reveal a wide gap between what officials knew at the height of the pandemic and what information was given to the public about workplace outbreaks and infections.
FERN uncovered that by mid-June nearly 2,000 workers were sick at 10 facilities — about 800 more than reported in the media or by public health officials.
According to the records, state health official Erica Berl wrote to local health officials on May 2 alerting them that NCDHHS would soon begin reporting facility names, counties, cases and deaths, with plans to update the data twice a week.
However, as FERN reports, “the move was strongly resisted by the local officials, who worried that the detailed reports would alienate the meat industry and make plants less likely to comply with public health measures.”
FERN published part of an email response to Berl from Lee County health director Heath Cain, which said such measures “will fracture the relationships built at the local level with these processing plants. [T]his will deter our efforts to build public health partnerships now and in the future.” At least one plant worker, Adelfo Ruiz, died of coronavirus-related causes in Lee County. He worked at Pilgrim’s Pride.
Chatham County health director Layton Long, now retired, wrote: “Our plant agreed to mass testing and has been very cooperative. That, cooperation I fear will now end. By posting this information they are essentially being penalized for cooperating. Long is referring to Mountaire Farms, a poultry plant in Chatham County where workers told Enlace Latino NC that they felt dispensable.
At a press conference on May 11, NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen did not directly answer a question from Enlace Latino NC and a followup from Carolina Public Press on whether NCDHHS would release the names of the meatpacking and poultry plants with coronavirus outbreaks. She did allude to sharing “something soon.”
“We hear you on wanting more information,” Cohen said in May. “But because we [NCDHHS] don’t regulate these industries, getting the full and clear, accurate picture is something we are still getting our arms around. But we hope to be able to share something soon.”
In October, several advocates petitioned the N.C. Dept. of Labor to adopt an emergency rule to protect meatpacking and poultry plant workers from infection. N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry rejected the request, stating “ the virus has not been proven likely to cause death or serious physical harm from the perspective of an occupational hazard.”