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How Widespread Coronavirus Testing Helped Meatpacking Plants Slow Outbreaks


America's meatpacking plants have been some of the country's worst COVID-19 hot spots with thousands of workers infected. Dozens have died. Some companies have now rolled out large-scale coronavirus testing for employees in an effort to keep those plants running. It's a strategy that other businesses may have to imitate. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In mid-April in Black Hawk County, Iowa, dozens of people started showing up in clinics with the symptoms of COVID-19. And most of them worked at the local Tyson Foods plant, one of the biggest pork plants in the country. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, the county's public health director, told plant managers they had a problem.

NAFISSA CISSE EGBUONYE: We were communicating that there is a huge volume; there's an outbreak.

CHARLES: But nobody knew yet how big it was.

Who first said, you've got to test absolutely everybody? Was it the company, or did you say that?

EGBUONYE: Oh, the local health department - we said that. I said it. You have to get a sense of what's going on in the plant.

CHARLES: So in late April, Tyson shut down the plant, and it asked all plant employees - 2,800 people - to come to the plant's parking lot, line up and get tested. Here's Scott Brooks, a senior vice president at Tyson.

SCOTT BROOKS: Yeah, we had to take dramatic measures.

CHARLES: In the end, close to a thousand workers at that plant tested positive. And hundreds of them did not have any symptoms. Without testing, they would have continued going to work, maybe spreading the virus. Since then, Tyson has hired an outside contractor to carry out a one-time test of all the workers at a bunch of plants. So far, they've done about 20 facilities, from Maine to Virginia and Texas.

BROOKS: We're somewhere around 30,000 people that have been tested of our team members. That's about a quarter of our workforce that has been tested.

DENNIS MEDBOURN: Yeah, we all had the swab up the nose. And it wasn't fun, I'll tell you that.

CHARLES: Dennis Medbourn is a union steward at a Tyson plant at Logansport, Ind.

MEDBOURN: At the time, I was not feeling sick - not at the time of testing.

CHARLES: But a few days later, while he was waiting for those test results, he lost his sense of smell, developed constant headaches. So it wasn't a surprise when he got his result - positive, along with about 900 other people at the plant. Fortunately, his was a mild case. And this has been the story at one plant after another. Most of the people who test positive seem healthy at the time - no symptoms of COVID-19.

One extreme example - Tyson says that 199 workers at a poultry plant in Springdale, Ark., tested positive but only one of them had symptoms. People who test positive have to isolate themselves. If they still haven't developed symptoms after 10 days, they can go back to work. Scientists say, by then, they likely can't infect anybody. And getting those infected workers to stay home has helped. In Black Hawk County, Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye says new COVID cases at the Tyson plant are way down.

EGBUONYE: Actually, today is our first day we've had a zero increase in cases.

CHARLES: Meatpacking plants are at the leading edge of a debate about how many people to test and how often in businesses and schools. A one-time test is only good for the short term because workers can pick up the virus the very next day. Mark Lauritsen, a top health and safety official for the United Food and Commercial Workers, is demanding a rapid coronavirus test for every worker every day.

MARK LAURITSEN: We really do have to get to some sort of daily testing mechanism for all the essential workers in this country.

CHARLES: A lot of his union members are still afraid to go back to work, he says. Testing would make it much less stressful.

LAURITSEN: They look around the plant and they look around their locker room or their break room, they know that everybody else inside these walls is COVID-free.

CHARLES: The director of health for the city of Nashville, Michael Caldwell, dealt with a coronavirus outbreak at a Tyson plant right outside his city, in Goodlettsville, Tenn. He says right now it's not feasible to test all the workers every day at a plant like that. But he wants companies to do regular random testing to catch any new waves of infection.

MICHAEL CALDWELL: I've told this to Tyson. I've told it to construction sites. I've told it to nursing homes, and I've told it to restaurants.

CHARLES: Tyson Foods says it is planning to test a random sample of employees in its meat processing plants. It hasn't yet decided how many or how often.

Dan Charles, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.