After alarming reports of massive coronavirus spread among workers at a Smithfield Food plant in Cudahy, Wisconsin, health officials in North Carolina are working hard to see that something similar doesn’t happen here.
On Monday, April 21, after hearing of outbreaks at food processing plants in Wisconsin and other states – and after receiving reports of virus cases among workers in the state – public and private leaders in North Carolina have come together in an attempt to protect workers here from COVID-19.
The NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) – which has been playing a central role in the state’s coronavirus response – is working with the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, local health departments, plant managers and owners, community health centers and local hospitals to make sure the food workers are safe, the food supply remains stable and the virus doesn’t spread through the plants. The state has also consulted with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get guidance as to the best way to protect workers at food processing facilities.
To combat the threat, food processing plants in the state are, among other cautionary measures, “doing temperature and symptom checks, encouraging sick employees to stay home and implementing paid sick leave for those with COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19.”
The plants are also providing personal protective equipment and using social distancing policies when it’s possible.
In addition, “Strike Teams” composed of staff from state and local health authorities and others, with “virtual support” from federal health agencies will be ready to conduct on-site assessments and provide technical assistance to the plants to limit further spread.
Mark Benton, the assistant secretary for Public Health at NCDHHS, stated in an April 21 press release that, “North Carolina’s response to COVID-19 cuts across departments and sectors, particularly when it comes to protecting those working so that we all have food to put on our tables. The department will continue to provide guidance and support to our sister agencies and partners on the ground as they respond to this new virus.”
There are 200 food-processing plants in North Carolina, and, currently, there are outbreaks in five of those plants across four counties. Those outbreaks are in Bladen, Chatham Duplin, Lee and Robeson counties.
According to state health officials, an outbreak is defined as “two or more positive cases.”
In those situations, local health departments are conducting investigations, including contact tracing, to determine who else may have been exposed.
Health care providers and hospitals are making sure that those who test positive for COVID-19 are connected to proper medical care.
NC Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler weighed in on the threat as well this week: “Agriculture and agribusinesses are on the front lines of this crisis just like hospital workers, first responders, grocery store staff, truck drivers and many more. Their work is different, but every bit as critically important. We are in contact with the companies, public health officials and our federal inspection partners. The companies are working to implement recommendations of the CDC and state public health and local officials to keep these facilities operating and producing a stable supply of safe and nutritious food.”
According to the US Food and Drug Administration, there’s no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with the transmission of COVID-19.