The Wilkes County Health Department collected nasal swab samples from 200 Tyson Foods Inc. employees for COVID-19 testing at the company’s chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro, where an outbreak of the virus began the week before last.
Derek Burleson, Tyson Foods public relations manager, said the testing Monday was mandatory for the 200 employees.
“Beginning Wednesday and running through Saturday, Matrix Medical will test the remainder of our team members employed by the Wilkesboro complex,” said Burleson. County government officials said nearly 3,000 people work at the complex in Wilkesboro.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said about 50 health department employees working in two shifts collected samples from employees with nasal swabs at the request of Tyson on Monday.
Although the number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wilkes increased from 132 Monday to 148 Tuesday, Willard said the latest increase wasn’t a result of the samples collected Monday at the Tyson complex. All of these cases are Wilkes residents.
The completed test kits from the work Monday at the chicken processing complex were sent to LabCorp for analysis to determine positive or negative results. “Most of the time it takes 24-48 hours” to get results, said Willard. “It depends on the testing volume.”
Willard said the health department doesn’t use COVID-19 “rapid tests” that produce results within two or three hours because “we feel validity and accuracy of tests are more important.” She said some testing options that produce results faster and in-house also require purchase of costly equipment.
She said the 200 people who were to be tested Monday all work in Tyson Foods Plant No. 1 (fresh plant) at the complex in Wilkesboro and were selected by Tyson because of their increased COVID-19-related health risks due health condition, age or where they work in the plant.
The health department purchased the 200 additional test kits for collecting swab samples. Wilkes County Manager John Yates said they cost county government about $11,000.
Willard and Yates both have said the COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson complex accounts for the majority of Wilkes County's confirmed cases. Late last week, Willard also said fewer than half of all confirmed cases at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro are Wilkes residents.
In accordance with guidance from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the health department doesn’t divulge the actual number of confirmed cases at the Tyson Foods complex in Wilkesboro and the actual number of Wilkes residents who are among confirmed cases at the complex. DHHS has said it can’t provide this information due to a state statute addressing patient privacy.
So far, Wilkes County has one confirmed COVID-19-related death, which also was the county’s first confirmed case in late March. From the end of the first week in April until April 21, Wilkes only had four confirmed cases.
On Tuesday, the health department website listed Wilkes with seven residents hospitalized for COVID-19 and 40 people who had recovered from the disease, which means they no longer are in self-isolation.