CDC Teams Respond to Shore as COVID-19 Cases Among Poultry Workers Climb to 279

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts and public health response teams from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia are responding to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among poultry workers on the Eastern Shore. USDA photo by Lance Cheung/Flickr.

In an effort to provide support for poultry workers infected with COVID-19 — and to slow the spread of the deadly virus in Delmarva’s agricultural community — teams from the Centers for Disease Control and the states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia are now on the ground providing increased testing and coordinating medical care.

A CDC report released Friday shows that the outbreak along the Eastern Shore is one of several hotspots around the country in communities where meat and poultry processors are a major employer.

“As of today, we have at least 279 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with poultry workers in Maryland,” said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in a statement.

“The case rate in Wicomico County is now the fourth-highest in the state, higher than both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.”

In an effort to test as many workers as possible, the state has launched two new testing sites — one at Perdue Stadium in Salisbury and another in Caroline County, Hogan said.

A team from the CDC arrived in the region this week at the request of Hogan and Govs. Ralph S. Northam (D) of Virginia and John Carney (D) of Delaware.

The CDC personnel will work closely with state and local health officials on a “comprehensive public health plan for the Eastern Shore poultry industry,” Gov. Hogan said.

According to a CDC report released on Friday, there have been 4,913 cases of COVID-19 infection at 115 meat and poultry processing facility in 19 states. Twenty workers have died.

Those plants employ approximately 130,000 workers, the report said.

Researchers concluded that working conditions at many plants makes distancing and hygiene difficult. Crowded living and transportation conditions were also factors, the report said.

The CDC recommends spacing out employees, instituting new hand hygiene protocols, cleaning plants more thoroughly, improving medical leave policies and providing workers with more information about COVID-19.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention graphic

After President Trump issued a directive that meat plants remain open to keep store shelves stocked, the union representing workers on Delmarva said additional protections are necessary.

“Our members in meatpacking and poultry plants are on the frontlines of a global pandemic that threatens our nation’s food supply,” said Jason Chorpenning, UFCW Local 27 president.

“These workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak and they must be protected. President Trump’s executive order now mandates that they continue to do so, without any language that ensures their safety.”

James Fisher, the spokesman for the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., a trade group, said Trump’s executive order “will give needed assistance to Delmarva’s chicken processing companies by sending food supply chain resources to plants, giving them even more ways to keep workers safe and protected from coronavirus.”

“By resolving inconsistencies among states in enforcing CDC guidelines, the order is a good first step towards a uniform standard for worker safety during this crisis in meat and chicken processing,” Fisher added.

Hogan called the outbreak in Maryland “a serious public health concern” and “a potential threat to Maryland’s leading agricultural industry and to our nation’s essential food supply chain.”

Statewide in Maryland, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases climbed by more than 1,700 on Friday to 23,472. Since mid-March, at least 1,098 Marylanders have died from the virus.

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.