RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – More than a thousand people at meat-processing facilities in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data released Friday by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Workers at those facilities as well as advocacy organizations called on the department to release more specific data about the outbreaks that have occurred at those businesses and to advocate for greater protections for workers.
“The industry has the ability to continue to operate, to continue supply our food chain in this country, as well as the ability at the same time to protect their workers,” said Hunter Ogletree, of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.
DHHS said 1,088 people have tested positive for the virus at the facilities. Statewide, 13,868 people have tested positive for COVID-19 this year. There are 22 outbreaks at meat-processing facilities, which have occurred in these counties: Bertie, Bladen, Burke, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Surry, Union, Wilkes and Wilson.
It’s not clear at which facilities all of the outbreaks have occurred or how many positive tests there have been at each facility.
DHHS has declined to release that data.
When CBS17 asked DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen if that data will be released and when, she did not say.
“They’re very critical for the infrastructure of North Carolina. We’ve been working on the public health side very closely with those plants because we want them to stay open,” she said.
MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, said the additional data is needed for employees and the public to better understand the spread of the virus.
She said, “We need more testing. We need to be able to get a handle on numbers. We need to figure out how do we contain outbreaks when they happen?”
Workers at the Case Farms plant in Morganton said they’ve been concerned about how their managers have reacted to the COVID0-19 outbreak. A current employee, Sofia, said she and others were given one mask that was meant to last three months.
A former employee, Gregoria, said she left her job at the facility in early April “because they haven’t been concerned about the health of any of the workers until today.”
“I left Case Farms because I was really fearful. I panicked,” she said. “The plant doesn’t want to say anything. It doesn’t tell anything to the workers because they don’t want workers to be fearful and stop working.”
In an email to CBS17, a Case Farms spokesperson wrote:
“The safety of our employees is our top priority at Case Farms. We are taking the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously and have several measures in place – all of which have been reviewed by directors of local health departments.
“Our teams have provided personal protection equipment to our employees such as face masks and or face shields, and created personal workspace barriers including plastic or plexiglass dividers between workers on assembly lines and common areas throughout all of our facilities. We have also implemented cleaning regiments, installed additional hand sanitizer in common areas, and instituted daily temperature checks for employees.
“We continue to have discussions with local county health directors to ensure the best practices are in place to mitigate group gatherings and keep our employees safe. We are committed to continue producing food for our nation’s food supply, while taking additional safety measures to protect our employees, our company and our customers, in accordance with USDA regulations and CDC guidelines.”
Advocacy groups, including the North Carolina Justice Center, sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and other state officials Friday calling on them to implement various requirements on the facilities by executive order or some other measure.
Those include: paid leave for employees, health and safety measures recommended but not mandated by the CDC, hazard pay for essential workers and job protections for employees who need to take leave.
To view the letter, click here.