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Perdue CEO asks Gov. Hogan to prioritize poultry workers in coronavirus vaccine rollout

Poultry processor Perdue Farms has asked Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to give the state’s meat and poultry workers priority for the coronavirus vaccine that’s being delivered to hospitals and nursing homes this week.

The CEO of Salisbury-based Perdue wants its 500 Maryland processing plant workers given priority in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

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The first phase, aimed at inoculating health care workers and nursing home workers and residents, is beginning this week. Doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Friday for emergency use, are being delivered to about two dozen Maryland hospitals to offer to front-line workers.

“To truly stop the spread of this virus, and to protect the men and women who continue to support our economy and food supply through their essential work, meat and poultry employees — and those who live with them — must be able to receive a vaccine as quickly as possible,” Perdue CEO Randy Day said in his letter to the governor.

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Perdue, the nation’s fourth-largest poultry producer, sent similar requests to the other 14 states in which the company operates meat and poultry plants as well as to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The company, which employs 21,000 people, said it hopes to see a coordinated effort among states to place not only meat workers but also their families at the top of the list in the next phase of distribution.

After hospitals and nursing homes get the vaccine, states have discretion to prioritize distribution, and plans vary from state to state.

Under Maryland’s plan, the state will offer the vaccine to priority groups, first to health care workers and nursing home residents, then to those at highest risk of complications and death, essential workers, people at moderate risk of severe illness and, finally, those without risk factors. Workers in the poultry plants are considered essential workers.

The state followed federal guidelines in setting the priorities. The goal is to vaccinate those at highest risk of complications first to prevent hospitals from becoming overloaded.

The Maryland Department of Health has received Perdue’s request and “will certainly keep it in mind as we move forward,” Charles Gischlar, a department spokesman, said Monday.

Though Phase 1A of the state’s plan focuses on health care workers, first responders and long-term care facilities, “some individuals may end up being vaccinated earlier than originally anticipated because of underlying conditions or other factors that would categorize them as part of a Phase 1 group,” Gischlar said.

Day said a “patchwork” of state policies, each prioritizing different groups, may do little to stop community spread of the virus because many Perdue plants are near state borders and employ workers who commute from a neighboring state.

“As a company that employs meat and poultry industry workers in 15 states, many of whom live in one state but work in another, we believe the CDC and state governments can collectively play an important role in working together to coordinate policies,” Day said.

In June, state health officials had reported that the coronavirus killed five workers from two Eastern Shore poultry plants and infected more than 200 other employees. 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.

Perdue said it would be able to offer vaccines to employees at its plants, which have wellness centers staffed by health professionals. And the food producer said it can help educate the public on the importance of the vaccine by communicating with workers as well as the broader community.

“Our teams communicate daily to a diverse workforce in which more than a dozen languages are spoken,” Day said. “We also have deep relationships in the communities our associates call home, having worked directly with local political, religious and business leaders.”

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