In midst of virus outbreaks at food-processing plants, NC health officials issue new guidance to protect workers

In midst of virus outbreaks at food-processing plants, NC health officials issue new guidance to protect workers
Updated: Apr. 21, 2020 at 2:11 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WECT) - North Carolina health officials have issued new guidance in an effort to protect workers at food-processing plants in the state after COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in at least five counties.

According to a news release from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently outbreaks in five food-processing facilities located in Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee and Robeson counties. An outbreak is defined as two or more positive cases.

An unknown number of the 5,000 employees at the Smithfield pork-processing plant in Bladen County, the largest such plant in the world, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Only one positive case at the plant involves a Bladen County resident, county health officials say.

“Local health departments are conducting outbreak investigations including contact tracing to determine who else may have been exposed. Health care providers and hospitals are ensuring that those who test positive for COVID-19 are connected to care,” the NCDHHS news release stated.

NCDHHS said that food-processing plants report that they are doing temperature and symptom checks, encouraging sick employees to stay home and implementing paid sick leave for those with COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19. They are also providing personal protective equipment and employing social distancing policies where possible, state health officials say.

“Agriculture and agri-businesses are on the front lines of this crisis just like hospital workers, first responders, grocery store staff, truck drivers and many more. Their work is different, but every bit as critically important,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “We are in contact with the companies, public health officials and our federal inspection partners. The companies are working to implement recommendations of the CDC and state public health and local officials to keep these facilities operating and producing a stable supply of safe and nutritious food.”

NCDHHS officials on Tuesday released interim guidance they say will help protect food-processing workers from the coronavirus.

“The interim guidance builds on previous CDC guidance for essential workers. It is not intended to replace any existing worker health and safety requirements of the U.S. and North Carolina Departments of Labor,” the news release stated.

“Strike” teams composed of staff from NCDHHS, and federal and state agencies, as well as local health departments will be available to conduct on-site assessments and provide technical assistance to plants to limit further spread.

“North Carolina’s response to COVID-19 cuts across departments and sectors, particularly when it comes to protecting those working so that we all have food to put on our tables. The department will continue to provide guidance and support to our sister agencies and partners on the ground as they respond to this new virus,” said Mark Benton, Assistant Secretary for Public Health at NCDHHS.

There are 200 food processing facilities in North Carolina. Food and agriculture is recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as being one of 16 critical infrastructures for national security.

According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), there is no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with the transmission of COVID-19.

For more information on North Carolina’s COVID-19 response and links to other guidance go to:

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