“We have no regulatory authority over Tyson. We are not legally able to mandate that they put any additional measures in place or shut down.”
By Michael Grabell, Claire Perlman & Bernice Yeung
For weeks, Rachel Willard, the county health director in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, had watched with alarm as COVID-19 cases rolled in from the Tyson Foods chicken plant in the center of town. Then Tyson hired a private company to take over testing, and the information suddenly slowed to a trickle.
Blinded to the burgeoning health crisis, Willard and her small staff grew increasingly agitated. The outbreak had already spread across 100 miles of the North Carolina piedmont, and two workers had died. But nearly a week after Tyson’s testing ended in May, the county health agency had received less than 20% of the results. The little information it did receive was missing phone numbers and other data, hindering critical efforts to follow up with infected workers, to tell them to isolate and to trace their contacts.
“Our fear and alarm is the fact that close contacts and positive cases are walking around, potentially shedding the virus and infecting others,” Willard, who was coordinating the response while on maternity leave, wrote to state officials on May 14.
Thousands of pages of documents obtained by ProPublica show how quickly public health agencies were overwhelmed by meatpacking cases. One CEO described social distancing as “a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.”
Only after the state public health director warned Tyson that failure to turn over information could result in “injunctive relief or prosecution” did the testing company release the information. As of Wednesday, 599 workers had tested positive, more than a fifth of the plant’s workforce.
The dangerous delay by the nation’s largest food company is one of a series of breakdowns revealed in tens of thousands of pages of emails, text messages, meeting notes and reports that ProPublica obtained from dozens of public health agencies across the country.
Overwhelmed public health agencies
As the coronavirus swept through the nation’s meatpacking plants this spring, chaotic scenes like those in Wilkesboro have played out in small towns that have become some of the country’s biggest hot spots. The candid, often emotional messages provide a real-time reckoning of how the companies responsible for a critical part of the food supply chain were hazardously unprepared and how a system that relied on tiny local public health agencies was quickly overwhelmed by the consequences.
In Tama, Iowa, where more than 250 workers at a National Beef plant tested positive for the virus, one local health official emailed her colleagues a meme of the chef Gordon Ramsay shouting, “SHUT IT DOWN!”
“They just don’t get it!” Mindy Benson, the county emergency management coordinator, later wrote to the group. “They will keep going until all of their employees have this virus. They would rather risk their employees’ health and keep their production going.” (National Beef did not return calls and emails seeking comment.)
The nation’s meatpackers along with federal and state officials have for years planned for pandemic flu outbreaks that could wipe out herds and flocks and threaten America’s food supply. But those efforts focused on animals rather than the army of humans — mostly immigrants, refugees and African Americans — hired to slaughter them and cut them up for restaurants and groceries.
The failure to have a coordinated plan for workers left small, often rural communities vulnerable. More than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants, ProPublica has found. Though many haven’t suffered severe symptoms, at least 87 workers have died. More than 25 of the dead worked for Tyson.
The coronavirus response was complicated by a lack of clarity over which agency had the authority to order meatpacking plants to make changes or shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could only offer guidance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture dealt with animals and food. The Labor Department had few rules that applied to a virus. And the power of local and state health officials varied from state to state.
In an emailed response to questions, Tyson acknowledged the delay in releasing the test results in North Carolina. “When we learned that there was a delay with our lab partners, we acknowledged the urgency of the situation and worked to address the situation immediately,” spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
He said Tyson formed a coronavirus task force in January to assess risks and work on mitigation plans and began engaging with the CDC and other health officials shortly thereafter. “At the majority of our facilities across the country, there have been no cases of COVID-19 that we know of,” he said. ProPublica found cases at slightly less than half of Tyson’s major processing plants.
But the scores of emails and other records show that best practices to protect workers, such as slowing the processing line to accommodate social distancing, installing plexiglass barriers and having workers wear masks, weren’t implemented until outbreaks began to occur. Instead, meatpacking companies spent crucial early weeks urging officials to keep their plants open. …