Wilkes County’s COVID-19 case total shot up earlier this month because of an outbreak of the disease at the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro, but now it has plunged almost as sharply downward due to the recovery of people at the Tyson complex.

The outbreak at the Tyson complex was quantified on May 20 when the company announced that 570 (25.4%) of 2,244 Tyson employees and contractors at the complex had tested positive for COVID-19. This was based on testing of samples taken by nasal swab May 4-9.

Just how many of the 570 who tested positive live in Wilkes wasn’t told, but about half of the roughly 3,000 people who work at the Tyson complex live in Wilkes and the surge in the county’s COVID-19 case total indicated at least half of the 570 live in Wilkes.

The increase gained national media attention, including in the New York Times. Analysis by the Times found that the “North Wilkesboro metro area” (Wilkes County) ranked first among 15 “metro areas” with the highest average daily growth rates of COVID-19 cases in the two weeks ending May 20.

The newspaper listed the North Wilkesboro metro area with 304 new cases in that two-week period. Many of the other metro areas on the top 15 list also had meat processing plants with COVID-19 outbreaks.

The response to the Tyson complex test results was reflected in a Boone Town Council decision last week to require that visitors to Boone self-isolate for a period before entering businesses and most other indoor establishments open to the public there. The action, later temporarily blocked by court order and then revised by the council, referenced a significant rise in COVID-19 cases in Wilkes and Burke counties.

At least one local business, SmartCuts (hair salon) on U.S. 421 in Wilkesboro, put up a sign this weekend saying it wasn’t serving Tyson employees “due to the number of Tyson employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 and given the close contact experienced during our service.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s phase two of easing COVID-19-related restrictions, which began at 5 p.m. Friday, allow hair salons, barber shops and certain other personal care businesses to open at 50% capacity.

Impact of “recovery”

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said a large increase in the number of “recovered” COVID-19 patients in Wilkes Monday and Tuesday resulted from the self-isolation period ending for many of the people at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro who tested positive for the disease earlier in May.

On Tuesday, the health department listed Wilkes with a total of 482 residents who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, 448 people who had recovered and four who had died. That left a total of 30 active COVID-19 cases, of which seven were hospitalized.

On Monday, Wilkes was listed with 477 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 443 people who had recovered and three deaths. That left 31 active cases in Wilkes. Wilkes had 472 confirmed COVID-19 cases on Saturday, with 301 of those recovered and three deaths. That left 162 active cases.

Wilkes County’s active COVID-19 case total hasn’t been as small as 30 since late April, when the COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson complex was just starting to be reflected in the county’s daily case totals.

Willard said outbreaks in meat processing plants in some other counties nationwide resulted in spikes in COVID-19 cases about 14 days later due to people having close contact with those infected with the virus in the initial outbreaks.

She said if the same pattern occurs in Wilkes, there could be a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases here later this week. The incubation period for the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is about 14 days.

Testing at Walmart

Willard also said that as of Monday, 223 COVID-19 tests had been completed during drive-through testing in the Walmart Supercenter parking lot on U.S. 421 in Wilkesboro. Willard said results were back on 90 of the tests, all negative.

The federally-funded testing started on May 15 and is continuing until further notice from 7-9 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The testing here and at certain other Walmart stores nationwide is offered at no cost to those tested. Appointments for testing must be made by going to an eTrueNorth portal at https://www.doineedacovid19test.com/.

The testing is available to anyone exhibiting what may be COVID-19 symptoms. It also is available to all health care workers and first responders, whether or not they’re exhibiting suspected symptoms. A referral from a physician isn’t needed.

More on Tyson test results

The majority of the 570 who tested positive at the Tyson complex didn’t show any symptoms and otherwise would not have been identified unless tested, the company stated.

The 2,244 people who were tested included 200 tested on May 4 by the Wilkes County Health Department, 37 tested by their own health care providers and 2,007 tested onsite by Matrix Medical from May 6-9. Matrix is a medical clinical services company hired by Tyson.

Tyson employees who test positive receive paid leave and may return to work only when they meet criteria established by Tyson and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the release said.

The Wilkesboro facility is among an initial group of more than 30 Tyson production facilities nationwide where Tyson is rolling out advanced testing capabilities and enhanced care options on-site to employees in partnership with Matrix and other partners.

“The company is prioritizing communities with a higher prevalence of COVID-19 and will assess additional needs based on significant risk factors and access to testing,” the release stated.

The release said that as Tyson is doing at the Wilkesboro complex, it will disclose verified test results at other plants to health and government officials, employees and stakeholders as part of its efforts to help affected communities where it operates better understand the coronavirus and protective measures that can help prevent its spread.

“We are working closely with local health departments to protect our team members and their families, and to help manage the spread of the virus in our communities,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods. “We are using the most up-to-date data and resources to support our team members, and we are committed to ensuring they feel safe and secure when they come to work.”

Employees at Tyson’s Wilkesboro complex have access to daily clinical symptom screenings, nurse practitioners and enhanced education.

The release said Axiom Medical, a health care case management provider, will also track symptoms of employees who test positive and provide additional care.

It said production has begun to ramp up at portions of the Wilkesboro complex where operations were limited recently to carry out additional deep cleaning.

The release cited numerous protective steps put in place by Tyson that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidance for preventing COVID-19. These include symptom screenings for all employees before every shift, providing mandatory protective face masks to all employees and social distancing measures such as physical barriers between workstations and in break rooms.

“Our team members are essential to helping feed the nation, and their health and safety is always our first priority,” said Kevin Taylor, manager of the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro.

“Disclosing our testing results will help better protect our team members and help provide the wider Wilkesboro community with the information it needs to stop the spread of the virus.”

Tyson Foods increased short-term disability coverage to 90% of normal pay until June 30 to encourage team members to stay home when they’re sick. The company has doubled its “thank you” bonus for its frontline workers. Team members who cannot come to work because of illness or childcare issues related to COVID-19 will continue to qualify.

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