Maryland’s Eastern Shore traces coronavirus outbreak to poultry plant workers — sounding warnings about food supply disruptions

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Maryland officials identified a coronavirus outbreak among Maryland poultry workers this week, sounding warnings about potential disruptions to the food supply chain as concerns about meat shortages loom large across the country.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that 262 poultry workers in the state have been infected with COVID-19 — a cluster that has hit hard in the Eastern Shore city of Salisbury, home to Perdue Farms and identified this week by The New York Times as one of the country’s worst COVID-19 infection sites.


The region’s economy hinges largely on Perdue Farms, a major processor of chicken, pork and turkey and one of the biggest employers in Wicomico County. The company operates its headquarters and a chicken processing facility in Salisbury, with other nearby plants in Sussex County, Delaware, a jurisdiction that the U.S. Census Bureau considers part of the city’s metropolitan area.

But even as officials trace the virus back to meat facilities, a new executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump mandates that processing plants such as Perdue’s remain open for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic — a potential source of tension that could endanger workers and wreak havoc on the nation’s food supply chain, officials said.


“If staffs get sick, it’s not possible to function," said Salisbury Mayor Jacob Day in a telephone interview Wednesday, adding that people of color and other vulnerable communities make up the majority of factory workers. "I’m not sure how meaningful [the executive order] is on the ground, but people are worried about it.”

Wicomico County now has the fifth highest case rate per 100,000 people in the state as a result of this outbreak, Hogan said, a tally that outpaces that of the more densely populated Baltimore County.

The Republican governor said several other Delmarva facilities had developed outbreaks, including Mountaire Farm’s processing plant in Selbyville, Delaware, and an Allen Harim plant in Delaware.

“We knew it was going to be an issue, not just for our neighbors, but for Maryland as well. So, we immediately got to work,” Hogan said. “These outbreaks are not only a serious public health concern, they’re also a potential threat to Maryland’s leading agricultural industry and to our nation’s essential food supply chain.”

The governor said he consulted with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, warning them that any disruption to Maryland’s meat processing plants could affect the national supply. The federal government “responded swiftly,” Hogan said, deploying a multi-agency operation to the area to assist with testing and contract tracing, among other initiatives.

He expected the CDC to arrive in Wicomico County as early as Wednesday evening, he added.

The county reported 350 total confirmed cases of the coronavirus Wednesday.

Day said the Salisbury coronavirus count includes patients who may live and work in Delaware’s Sussex County but have commuted to Peninsula Regional Medical Center for treatment. Still, the numbers signal trouble ahead for the rest of Wicomico County, he said, as many commute in and out of Maryland for essential work each day.


“If you want to know how the virus moves, look where people move,” said Day. “Critical action is needed in support of poultry workers, in particular.”

In a statement, Perdue spokeswoman Diana Souder said the company responded “swiftly” to the threat of COVID-19, screening workers for fevers, providing face masks and installing temporary partitions on production lines. It has not experienced any “issues with attendance" in Maryland, she said.

But Day said the regional plants have reduced staffs by 20% per shift as a precaution. Workers are still getting paid and output has not changed, he added. Day’s father, Randy Day, is CEO of Perdue Farms.

The mayor also said that while Peninsula Regional Medical Center had not yet reached capacity, the number of patients seeking treatment grew by about 50% over the past weekend. He said data reflects a need to expand testing capacity among the area’s meat workers — including those who do not have symptoms but could spread the virus unknowingly as they work in confined quarters.

“There’s been recognition that poultry workers need a higher degree of testing attention than our population might otherwise imply,” he said.

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To address the surge in COVID-19 patients, the medical center has added about 40 beds, outfitting conference rooms and offices into temporary intensive care units, according to public documents submitted to the Maryland Health Care Commission. Single occupancy dormitories at Salisbury University have been converted to house recovering patients, though no patients at the hospital have transitioned there yet, said Roger Follebout Jr., spokesman for the Peninsula health system, in an email.


The state will partner with the Wicomico County Health Department to run a mass drive-thru screening event for local poultry workers and their families this weekend at Perdue Stadium to better assess the size and scope of the outbreak.

“The numbers are going up because more and more people are being tested, and the health departments and hospitals have a combined effort to reach into the poultry industry, the plants, the families of workers, etc.," he said. "With the mass testing that is about to take place across Delmarva, the ‘positive’ numbers have a chance to significantly increase. It does not mean that hospitals could become overrun with patients, nor does it mean epidemic concerns in our communities.”

Follebout declined to comment on the hospital’s coordination efforts or interaction with regional meat plants.

On Tuesday, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers in much of the country’s meatpacking industry, called on protein companies to take more steps to protect their employees, imploring them to enforce social distancing, provide respirator masks at the start of every shift, and offer paid sick leave.

“Tyson and every company across this vital industry, must immediately join with UFCW in calling for federal and state elected leaders to designate these frontline workers as first responders," said union President Marc Perrone in a statement. “Temporary first responder status ensures these workers have priority access to the COVID-19 testing and protective equipment they need to continue doing these essential jobs.”

Hogan did not take such step at Wednesday’s news conference.