When Tyson Foods announced Wednesday night it had 570 positive cases of COVID-19 among its Wilkesboro workforce, the size of the outbreak rippled across the state.
However, it’s proving challenging to determine whether it is the largest single outbreak in North Carolina to date. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases at any single site.
That’s because meat-packaging operations, such as Tyson’s chicken-processing facilities that have a combined 2,244 employees, are not required to report infectious-disease cases to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Instead, those operations are accountable to the N.C. and U.S. Agriculture departments, which have not posted specific outbreaks data on their websites.
State Agriculture officials could not be immediately reached for comment about how they are tracking and reporting outbreaks.
The most relevant COVID-19 related announcement on the state Agriculture’s website is geared toward reassuring consumers about the meat supply at retail.
Meanwhile, there doesn’t appear to be an outbreak data clearinghouse either for non-agriculture employers, such as the 16 at Hanesbrands Inc.’s distribution center in Rural Hall and up to 10 at Ashley Furniture’s plant in Advance.
That was the case for the single COVID-19 case disclosed Tuesday by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. at its manufacturing plant in Tobaccoville. Reynolds also said March 30 it had two non-production employees to test positive.
N.C. Health News reported in early May there had been outbreaks at 15 meat and poultry processing plants in 11 counties: Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Robeson, Sampson, Wilkes, Union and Wilson. At that time, the combined case total was 604.
Since then, there has been an outbreak at a Wayne Farms chicken-processing plant in Dobson, along with the sharp increase at the Tyson plant in Wilkesboro.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said Thursday it’s evident that part of the surge in COVID-19 cases “is coming from some of our critical infrastructure businesses by the nature of that business.”
“These meat-processing plants are heavily regulated by the Department of Agriculture.
“As an industry, they are not required to report (outbreaks) to our department, but when it comes to our attention, our role from the Department of Public Health is to help them with various infection control methods.”
Cohen said DHHS has tried to emphasize where major outbreaks are occurring by reporting cases by Zip code, along with those in nursing homes and residential care facilities.
“We’re also helping to facilitate on-site or close to the plant testing, with Tyson being a good example of that of working with local health departments and the state,” Cohen said.
Where the tracking and contract tracing seems to have gaps in when employees work in one county, but live in another.
At least 70 cases of COVID-19 are Forsyth County residents who either work at the Tyson plant or have come into close contact with someone who works there, according to the Forsyth Department of Public Health.
Wayne Farms is one of Surry’s largest private and manufacturing employers with at least 500 workers, according to the county Economic Development Partnership Inc.
Samantha Ange, Surry’s health director, said Wayne Farms employees with confirmed cases are self-isolating.
“We are working hand in hand with local health officials and in full conformance with CDC, OSHA and public health guidance,” Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said in a statement.
“With a very low percentage of our employee population testing positive for the virus, we believe these efforts have helped prevent the introduction and spread of the virus within our facility.”
In the examples of the Ashley Furniture, Hanesbrands and Wayne Farms outbreaks, it’s unclear how wide the community spread may be since those facilities draw workers from several surrounding counties.
Hanesbrands said Wednesday that additional testing of employees at its Rural Hall distribution center found an additional 15 positive tests for a total of at least 16. Hanesbrands spokesman Matt Hall said the company had 164 distribution center employees tested.
Hall said of the 15 new cases, 10 were already in quarantine based on the first positive case that was disclosed May 15.
“We have begun contact tracing on the other five and have suspended operations for all employees of this shift,” Hall said. “It is important to note that of the 15 positive cases, only two showed symptoms.”
Ashley has more than 1,600 employees at its mammoth Advance facility. It has been actively recruiting for months to hire an additional 100, including holding several job fairs on site and participating in events in Forsyth.
Ashley Furniture spokesman Cole Bawek said Wednesday that “we have no reported cases where transmission is believed to have occurred while working at our facility.”
“Out of caution, we have nonetheless asked associates who may have previously come in close contact with these associates to quarantine at home.”
Suzanne Wright, Davie County’s health director, said Thursday that “since Ashley Furniture employs individuals from multiple counties, I can only confirm the one associated case that resides in Davie.”
“A member of Ashley Furniture’s leadership staff reported Thursday that a ‘handful’ can be defined as less than 10 employees.
“The staff member reported that there is no consistent pattern of cases in one particular department or area of Ashley, and all confirmed cases are associated with close contact transmission outside of Ashley.”
Joshua Swift, Forsyth’s health director, said Thursday he doesn’t know of any significant number of cases in the county related to Ashley.
Health directors for Davidson, Iredell, Rowan and Yadkin counties did not respond when asked about any potential Ashley case spillover into their counties.