The coronavirus has killed five workers from two Eastern Shore poultry plants and infected more than 200 other employees, Maryland health officials said Thursday.
Three workers employed at the Amick Farms plant in Hurlock in Dorchester County died, and the virus killed two employees from a Perdue plant in Salisbury, said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan.
Amick Farms reported 150 infections, while Perdue found 58, after the state conducted widespread testing at the facilities in recent weeks, he said.
Health officials traced hundreds of coronavirus cases to Eastern Shore poultry plants in late April, when it became apparent the Salisbury area was an emerging national hot spot for COVID-19 infections.
The outbreaks prompted visits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adjustments to plant operations, including replacement of fans used to keep workers cool and installation of plastic barriers between work stations.
But workers have raised concern that they aren’t getting information about positive tests and deaths, even as they have been urged to keep coming to work and helping to maintain the nation’s food supply.
Maryland health officials said last month that more than 360 poultry workers and their family members had tested positive for the virus, but would not provide specific numbers of infections and deaths at each plant until testing of all workers was completed.
In response to questions from The Baltimore Sun, officials said Thursday that a round of universal testing at the plants has been completed, and that there have been no new positive tests at either facility in the past two weeks.
When a reporter from The Sun shared the information about cases and deaths at the two plants, Jonathan Williams, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, said it was alarming but confirmed fears and suspicions workers have carried for months.
“Workers don’t feel like companies are being straight with them about how many cases there are,” said Williams, whose union represents 1,000 workers at the Amick Farms plant. “Workers have a right to know about this.”
Amick Farms officials said in a statement Friday that the testing was conducted as part of a range of “precautionary measures” to meet and exceed CDC guidelines to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Maryland officials said they tested 1,362 workers at the plant.
Amick Farms said the roughly 4% who tested positive were put on full paid leave and asked to quarantine at home. The company said it also has been working closely with employees and union leadership to answer questions and address concerns, using verbal communication, electronic bulletin boards, flyers and social media.
Company officials said they have not been informed of any new positive tests since the widespread testing was conducted.
“We continue to monitor the data and science around the spread of the virus and make the appropriate adjustments to help protect our workforce,” they said in a statement.
Perdue spokeswoman Andrea Staub said that company has been “as transparent as we can” with employees, providing information through translators, increasing screening for the virus through temperature checks, and offering information and resources through a wellness center at the Salisbury plant.
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When universal testing of 593 staff members was conducted at the Perdue plant May 7, about 5% of the tests came back positive, state officials said. No employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since, Staub said.
Staub noted the positivity rate in the Salisbury area was much higher than that at the time, and questioned the attention the plant has received.
Health experts have noted that positivity rates are lower when testing of a population is widespread, as it was at the plants. Widespread testing identifies many people who are not infected and thus produces more negative results as well as positives.
Coronavirus outbreaks at meat and poultry plants have been of particular concern for health officials during the pandemic because they bring hundreds if not thousands of people in close quarters for work that is essential to maintaining the food supply.
Nationwide, about 500,000 people work in meat and poultry packing and processing, and at some facilities, outbreaks have been significant. In a survey last month, the CDC found more than 18% of workers at two meat processing plants in Iowa had tested positive for the virus.
In another study, the CDC reported last month that there had been nearly 5,000 coronavirus cases and 20 deaths at 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states. That survey did not include Maryland.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.