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Salisbury made a national list of coronavirus hot spots. How many cases came from its poultry plant? Maryland won’t say.

Jilna Jean baptiste's husband, Miska, worked at the Perdue Farms plant in Salisbury with a fever. He died 10 days later due to COVID-19.

Word spreads quickly in Salisbury — sometimes in English, other times in the Spanish or Creole of its immigrant communities. It’s how people learned about the young man who was hospitalized with COVID-19, or the father who developed an unrelenting fever and breathing difficulties and died.

The young man’s mother and the man who died were both chicken plant workers, a dominant employer in Salisbury, where Perdue Farms is headquartered, and throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.

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“This is an intimate community,” said Amy Liebman, an occupational and environmental health specialist for a nonprofit. “We’re all connected here.”

The connective fiber has always threaded through the poultry industry, but perhaps no more clearly than now when its massive processing plants have emerged as hot spots of the global coronavirus pandemic.

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State health officials say 362 poultry workers and family members have tested positive for the virus. Of those, 240 live in Salisbury or elsewhere in Wicomico County, although some may work at plants elsewhere in the three Delmarva states.

Those totals are the only figures the state has released. In response to repeated requests by The Baltimore Sun, the Hogan administration would not release specific numbers of cases for the two big plants on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore — Perdue in Salisbury and Amick Farms in Hurlock in Dorchester County — saying it is still trying to test all workers on every shift and does not have complete data about the outbreak that has drawn national attention since April 23. That’s when The New York Times identified the Salisbury metro area as one of the country’s worst COVID-19 infection sites.

No one is saying how many plant workers or their families have died of COVID-19, though The Baltimore Sun spoke to the widow of one worker at the Salisbury plant. According to state data, 19 deaths in Wicomico County are attributed to the virus.

The lack of full information on the extent of the outbreak tied to the industry only adds to the climate of fear and alarm among workers and the community as a whole, critics say.

“People are worried about contracting the disease at work," said Jonathan Williams, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union representing about 1,000 workers at a nearby processing plant in Delaware. "Information is being withheld from them, and they don’t know how many cases there are.”

A worker walks to an entrance to the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Salisbury. Officials won't say how many of the Eastern Shore town's coronavirus cases are tied to its poultry plants.
A worker walks to an entrance to the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Salisbury. Officials won't say how many of the Eastern Shore town's coronavirus cases are tied to its poultry plants. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the former Maryland health secretary, said the state should consider releasing plant-specific information much as it ultimately did for nursing homes, another hot spot for the spread of the virus, after first refusing to do so.

“The was a little bit of resistance initially to releasing data on nursing homes, and then they realized that it was valuable information,” said Sharfstein, vice dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“It’s of value to the communities," Sharfstein said. "There are people who are in the orbit of these facilities … There’s just such intense interest and anxiety, and more transparency really helps to address that.”

State officials referred The Sun to local health officials for plant-specific information. The Wicomico County Health Department released general information about recent coronavirus testing conducted at the Salisbury plant and at the Perdue Stadium in Salisbury, normally home to the minor league Delmarva Shorebirds baseball team. Testing at the stadium was not limited to plant workers.

At the stadium, 7% to 8% of the 2,139 people tested were positive, said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Wicomico health department. In testing at the Perdue plant, 5% of the 663 plant workers tested were positive, she said. Johnson said no information is available yet for testing done at neighboring Dorchester County’s Amick Farms, a processing plant with more than 1,500 workers.

The plants say they have implemented safeguards that include providing protective gear, putting plastic barriers between employees who normally work shoulder-to-shoulder on assembly lines, frequently and rigorously cleaning the facility and undergoing regular government inspections.

But workers, activists and some critics say plant employees remain vulnerable because of the nature of their workplace and living conditions. Many are immigrants with limited language skills who fear losing their paychecks and can have difficulty practicing social distancing because they live in multigenerational homes or share rides.

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It was a concern from the very beginning because they work so close together,” said Leila Borrero-Krouse, an immigration specialist in Salisbury with CATA, a farmworkers’ rights group. “My other concern is a lot travel together.”

A sign in English, Haitian Creole and Spanish hangs on a fence outside the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Salisbury reads "Thanks for helping feed America during this challenging time."
A sign in English, Haitian Creole and Spanish hangs on a fence outside the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Salisbury reads "Thanks for helping feed America during this challenging time." (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

She helped translate for Spanish-speakers who went to Perdue Stadium to be tested, and has been trying to link them to resources for food, health care and other needs.

The spread of the virus through Delmarva is part of a larger crisis afflicting meat and poultry plants nationwide. So many workers have become sick or are quarantining at home that elsewhere, plants have slowed production or shut down temporarily, straining the food supply chain and raising fears of shortages. Millions of pigs and chickens have had to be destroyed for lack of enough workers to process them.

The Perdue and Amick plants have remained open.

Nationwide, about 500,000 people work in meat and poultry packing and processing. The toll that the virus has taken on them is high in some cases: According to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 18% of workers at two meat processing plants in Iowa tested positive for the virus. Other plants had lower rates, such as the six in Delaware where less than 4% had the virus.

Maryland was not among the states that contributed data for the May 1 report, in which the CDC asked states to voluntarily submit information on the number of workers who had contracted the virus, a CDC spokesman said.

Despite experts saying meat and poultry workers face a higher risk of exposure than other workers, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order processors to remain open and "ensure that Americans have a reliable supply of products like beef, pork, and poultry.”

Since Salisbury and surrounding areas began seeing high rates of the coronavirus, health officials have ramped up testing and outreach efforts.

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But some say it’s too little too late, the virus has already taken root in the area and, particularly before stronger safety measures and expanded testing began, workers were at risk of exposure at the plants.

“It’s a breeding ground for the virus,” said Habacuc Petion, a Haitian native who has lived in Salisbury since the 1990s.

The coronavirus has cut a wide swath through the immigrant families who now call Salisbury home, Petion’s included: His mother is currently recovering in a nursing home, and she might have gotten it from his sister, with whom she lived. Petion’s sister works at a plant in Delaware and tested positive for the virus but has not become ill, he said.

But Petion lost a cousin he grew up with in Haiti who worked at the Perdue plant in Salisbury, Miska Jean baptiste.

Jean baptiste developed a fever around the beginning of April, but continued to go to work, saying Perdue was taking employees’ temperatures and would send them home if they were too elevated, said his wife, Jilna Jean baptiste.

Her husband’s was high, but rather than send him home, she said he was given ice cream.

“They try to chill you down so you can go work,” the widow said.

A Perdue spokeswoman disputed that account of company practices, saying any worker whose temperature exceeds CDC guidelines is “without exception” banned from entering the facility and sent to an on-site wellness center for further screening and guidance.

Jean baptiste said her husband kept working “four days straight,” until she insisted he see a doctor and not go to work.

“If I didn’t stop him on Friday,” she said, “my husband would have died there.”

Jilna Jean baptiste's husband, Miska, went to work as a supervisor at the Perdue Farms chicken plant in Salisbury with a fever on April 7. She says his temperature was taken at the plant and he continued to work for four days when they sought care. He tested positive for coronavirus and died April 16.
Jilna Jean baptiste's husband, Miska, went to work as a supervisor at the Perdue Farms chicken plant in Salisbury with a fever on April 7. She says his temperature was taken at the plant and he continued to work for four days when they sought care. He tested positive for coronavirus and died April 16. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

His condition deteriorated over the weekend, and after having difficulty breathing, he was taken to the hospital. He eventually had to be put on a ventilator. In a second call from the hospital on April 16, 10 minutes after she was told he was doing OK, she said she was told his heart stopped and he died.

The 44-year-old husband and father also leaves behind three children aged 12 to 16.

They’ve all been tested, and two of the children were positive although neither had symptoms. But, Jean baptiste said, her 86-year-old grandmother, who lived with them, also contracted the virus and died.

“I just cry every day,” she said.

The Perdue spokeswoman, Andrea Staub, said that due to privacy concerns she could not comment on the circumstances of the death of “MJ," as Jean baptiste’s husband was known, except to make the company’s policy clear.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved colleague, MJ, and extend our deepest condolences to his wife and family,” Staub said in an email.

Nationwide, according to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, 10,000 cases of coronavirus infection are associated with meat and poultry processing plants and 45 workers have died. Frosh led a group of 20 state attorneys general on Tuesday in calling on Trump to ensure the safety of the workers whom he has deemed essential and must continue to work during the pandemic. They called for mandating social distancing, protective gear and paid time off for those who quarantine.

Staub said that the health of workers continues to be “our top priority" and Perdue has already implemented the safety measures the attorneys general are calling for.

A prepared statement from Amick Farms said it, too, has implemented measures to protect workers, from providing masks and sanitizing stations to staggering break times to avoid crowding to partitions in workspaces.

An Amick spokeswoman would not say how many workers have tested positive for the virus, saying the company does not reveal details about their health.

At Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury as elsewhere, staff doubled their capacity of critical care beds in anticipation of a surge of patients. It went from 42 to 86, but the hospital has not had to use them all as of yet, said Sarah Arnett, chief nursing officer of the hospital.

She estimated that more than half of the COVID patients who have been treated at the hospital have been plant workers or those related to or living with them. They’ve had couples receiving treatment at the same time, and some who previously had not been seen for existing medical conditions, Arnett said.

For some, language has been a barrier to seeking care, both now and previously, she said. “The other challenge is a financial one,” Arnett said. “It’s a reason people don’t seek care — they want to work, they needed the money."

A worker moves cages of chickens at the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Salisbury.
A worker moves cages of chickens at the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Salisbury. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Rachel Micah-Jones, who founded and directs Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a workers’ rights group based in Mexico and Baltimore, said that while some plants may be following new guidelines issued in the wake of the pandemic to protect workers, the measures need to be enforceable mandates. Workers, particularly immigrants, may remain wary of taking advantage of available benefits, she said.

“Even those who may have access to sick leave feel they have to go to work or be fired,” Micah-Jones said. “There’s fear of retaliation for staying home.”

There’s a fear of retaliation for staying home.


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Liebman agreed.

You can’t underestimate the environment of fear some of our immigrants live in,” said Liebman, the Salisbury-based director of environmental and occupational health for the Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit that seeks to improve access to medical care

“They’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, Leibman said.

This disease is disproportionately impacting our vulnerable communities,” she said. “I think just today as a country we essentially are saying we’re willing to accept 3,000 deaths a day … because ’we need to reopen our economy.’”

And in Salisbury, she said, that economy is tied to poultry. According to the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group, its producers generated $3.5 billion and 20,391 jobs last year.

Liebman said she has been heartened by the community coming together after the area emerged as a coronavirus hot spot.

Salisbury University has provided a dorm, for example, for patients released from the hospital but who still need more care than can be provided at home.

Lori Brewster, Wicomico’s health officer, said some workers’ housing situations make it difficult for those who test positive to isolate.

“We have the ability to offer housing" at the university dorm, she said. But often, “this is a population that’s very family oriented and not likely to accept that as an option. It’s very difficult to quarantine at home if you’re sharing bedrooms and bathrooms.”

Much of the community response to battling the virus has come from the immigrants themselves. The workforce is no longer largely migratory; many have settled on the Shore, advocates said.

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The Haitian community, for example, has a church, Word of Life, and groups including one started by Petion that operates a radio station that has been broadcasting information about the coronavirus. Petion interviewed Salisbury Mayor Jacob Day during one show, repeating his answers in Creole for his audience.

Kenson Raymond, a Haitian native who runs an immigration assistance service in Salisbury, said he believes residents might have been slow to accept the severity of pandemic, particularly early on before more were tested or began showing symptoms.

Now though, seemingly everyone knows someone affected, Raymond said.

“When things happen closer to home, people take it seriously,” he said.

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