Tyson Foods

Several ‘Now Hiring’ signs were posted last week around the Tyson Foods plant in Wilkesboro. Employees at the plant or their associates have accounted for a number of COVID-19 cases in Forsyth, Guilford and Wilkes counties, public health officials said.

After weeks of relatively minor increases in the number of COVID-19 cases locally, Forsyth County saw its case total spike over the last six days after dozens of residents who work at, or are associated with, a meat processing plant in Wilkes County tested positive for the virus.

At least 115 people tested positive for the virus this week, including 16 new cases announced on Saturday. The majority of people who tested positive either work at the Tyson Meats poultry processing plant in Wilkesboro, or are close contacts of the employees there, according to the Forsyth County Health Department.

Last Sunday, Forsyth County reported 153 cases of the virus, with only 40 of them considered active. On Saturday, the county health department reported 268 cases, with 133 of them considered active. Five people have died from the virus here.

Forsyth’s spike in cases comes during a week Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen declared North Carolinians had “flattened the curve” in terms of new cases of the coronavirus.

North Carolina has seen a marked increase in cases this week as well, with more than 2,000 new cases announced this week. There are more than 11,500 people in the state who have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 420 of those people died. Not everyone who is thought to have the virus is tested for it, and the total number of people with COVID-19 is likely higher, according to the state health department.

COVID-19 cases by zip code

Zip code Population No. of cases Deaths
27101 17,257 12 N/A
27103 33,208 38 1
27104 28,485 57 1
27105 39,568 19 N/A
27106 45,015 25 1
27107 46,963 34 1
27127 34,138 27 N/A

However, at least some of the increase in recorded cases can be directly attributed to more testing for the virus. Cohen said one of the criteria for looking at easing stay-at-home restrictions in the state is the ability to test between 5,000 and 7,000 people a day, and the state is largely meeting that criteria. At least 5,000 tests have been completed everyday since Tuesday, according to data from the state health department.

Data by zipcode

On Friday, the state health department made available the number of COVID-19 cases sorted by every zipcode in the state. Of Forsyth County’s 268 cases, 212 are in zipcodes that lie almost entirely within the city of Winston-Salem.

At least 95 of the city’s cases, and two of the county’s deaths, are in the 27103 and 27104 zipcodes. Those two zipcodes make up nearly half of the city’s cases despite being two of the three smallest zipcodes in terms of population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Residents of both zipcodes are primarily white and include affluent neighborhoods like Ardmore and Buena Vista. The 27104 zipcode by far has the largest rate of infection in the city when compared to the population, with approximately two people infected per 1,000 residents.

There are nursing homes in both areas, but the county health department reports no outbreaks in any such facility here.

Tyson outbreak continues

With the majority of Forsyth’s cases being linked to the outbreak at the Tyson plant, some health officials and experts are less concerned than if the spike in cases had been the result of widespread community transmission.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert with Wake Forest Baptist Health, said Thursday at a press conference that these clusters of the virus are easier to track and manage from a public health perspective.

“There’s not a lot of COVID out here in the background of our communities,” Ohl said then. “It’s kind of trapped in those clusters.”

The Tyson facility in Wilkesboro is Wilkes County’s largest employer, with more than 1,000 employees, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. There are 104 cases of the virus in Wilkes, and the majority of those cases are linked to the Tyson facility as well, according to the health department there.

Several "Now Hiring" signs could be seen this week outside of the poultry facility.

Employees at meat processing facilities often work long shifts standing shoulder to shoulder with one another, making it easy for the virus to spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even if the outbreak continues, it is unlikely that the plant in Wilkesboro will close. President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this week mandating meat processing facilities stay open in order to keep the nation’s food supply chains intact.

It is not clear how Tyson plans to prevent any future spread of the virus. A call to its corporate office was not immediately returned Saturday.

On Twitter @LeeOSanderlin



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