Meatpacking plants with Covid outbreaks in NC
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Dra. Mandy Cohen.

NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh- In today’s N.C. COVID-19 media briefing, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Mandy Cohen answered questions regarding the coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking and poultry processing plants in North Carolina.

Enlace Latino NC asked how NCDHHS was addressing outbreaks, and if the department would release the names of these plants. We also asked if they would require facilities with outbreaks to release the number of cases as they occur.

“Meat and poultry plants are critical infrastructure businesses, they have been deemed by the president of the United States [that] they need to be open. But we know in order for them to be open their workers need to be within six feet. As we’ve been talking, that puts you at higher risk for spreading the virus,” said secretary Mandy Cohen.

She added: “There are things that we can do and we have been offering assistance to these companies. Things like putting on face masks, not just covering, but having PPE like we would have in a healthcare setting. Have barriers. Have testing on site. Making sure if someone is sick, they get paid sick leave and can stay home.”

"working with the processing plants"

Mike Sprayberry, the Director of Emergency Management, said the departments “have been working with the processing plants as well as with the Department of Agriculture who regulates these plants, the Department of Labor and also the CDC.”

Enlace Latino NC has spoken to several workers from a total of three different meatpacking and poultry plants throughout the state. When asked in the past few weeks if they were given PPE beyond masks, they said no. As widely reported by Enlace Latino NC and other news outlets, workers allege that their employers did not provide masks until late April.

Cohen added that the department understood that meatpacking and poultry processing plants are “different than nursing homes,” where cases of coronavirus have steadily increased, causing more than 200 deaths. Carolina Public Press, the News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer, WRAL, WECT and WBTV collectively threatened to sue the NCDHHS to force disclosure of those records. As of Monday, there were 3,697 confirmed cases in outbreaks in 63 nursing homes.

Comparatively, Cohen said “We know that people who live in a nursing home do not leave that space. The workers [at meat and poultry processing facilities] do go home and they go into their communities. So we have to be working with the plants and we have to be working with their communities to make sure that we are working to slow the spread of the virus.” She did not elaborate on how the department is addressing those communities.

1,088 cases at 22 plants

The most updated NCDHHS data reveals 1,088 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 22 meat and poultry processing plants in the state.

On Friday, May 8, WITN reported the death of a worker from Butterball’s Mount Olive facility. When reached for comment, a spokesperson told Enlace Latino NC that they “have not yet learned the cause of death” and that the employee was not at work when they died.

“This employee was an accomplished and highly regarded team member who held a team lead position on the evening shift at the Mount Olive facility,” a Butterball spokesperson told us Saturday.

Workers told Enlace Latino NC over the weekend that they worry it was a coronavirus-related death. The Duplin County Health Department could not be reached for comment.

Cohen did not answer the question about releasing the names of the meat and poultry facilities with coronavirus outbreaks. In a follow-up question, Carolina Public Press asked Cohen whether workers would get paid leave and if the department would release those names.

Sick leave

“In all of the companies that I’ve spoken to, paid sick leave was part of their strategies,” she said.

“We want to know what’s happening at the plant but also about the community. "To make sure we are paying attention to both, which we are,” she added. “We hear you on wanting more information. 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.”

Workers and advocates sent a letter to the governor’s office on May 8 demanding transparency on outbreaks at the meat and poultry facilities, as well as paid sick leave and other benefits to workers. According to the N.C. Justice Center, one of the organizations who signed the letter, the governor’s office confirmed receipt of the letter but has not responded further.


Victoria Bouloubasis

Victoria Bouloubasis cubre la intersección de temas ambientales y movilidad económica en comunidades latinx, inmigrantes y refugiados en Carolina del Norte para Southerly y Enlace Latino NC. Es periodista...

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