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Testing of workers at the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro May 6-9 by Matrix Medical Network accounted for most of a spike in local confirmed COVID-19 cases late this week, said Wilkes County government officials.
The reported confirmed case total went from 284 Thursday to 393 Friday, which was a 38% jump and the county’s largest one-day increase yet.
Wilkes County’s confirmed COVID-19 total was 412 by noon Saturday, with 207 of those considered recovered (no longer in isolation), 20 hospitalizations (nine currently hospitalized) and one death, according to the Wilkes Health Department website.
County officials say a COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson complex accounts for the majority all Wilkes residents determined to have the disease so far– either employees of the Tyson complex or people directly connected to employees there.
Many of the nearly 3,000 people who work at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro live in adjoining counties and many are refugees from third world countries who live in Forsyth and Guilford counties. Officials in some of those counties have said people who live there and work at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro account for much of a recent increase in their confirmed cases.
Details on testing at Tyson complex?
The Wilkes Journal-Patriot asked Derek Burleson, Tyson public relations manager, by email Friday evening to tell the number of people tested by Matrix at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro and number of positive tests.
Burleson responded by email, “We'll share the verified test results as soon as possible.”
County officials said Tyson told them the results testing by Matrix, but also said they are prohibited from sharing it with the media or public under a directive from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Tyson hired Matrix to do the testing.
However, county officials announced that the Wilkes Health Department tested 200 people at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro for COVID-19 at the request of Tyson on May 4 and that nearly 20% of those tested positive.
When DHHS publicly listed Wilkes among North Carolina counties with COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants in late April, the Wilkes Journal-Patriot asked DHHS to identify the plant in Wilkes with an outbreak.
DHHS defines an outbreak as at least two confirmed COVID-19 cases in a facility.
Sarah Lewis Peel, DHHS communications manager, declined to provide this information then and said doing so would violate the N.C. Reportable Disease Confidentiality statute.
Peel stated then by email, “The reason we do not report individual facility information is because providing specific health information, like small numbers of positive test results for a reportable disease in combination with the geographic location at the facility level, makes the protected health information of the individuals served by that facility identifiable. The N.C. Reportable Disease Confidentiality statute (G.S. 130A-143) outlines this.”
This statute says that “all information and records, whether publicly or privately maintained, that identify a person who has AIDS virus infection or who has or may have a disease or condition required to be reported pursuant to the provisions of this Article shall be strictly confidential.”
Regardless, it soon was apparent that the Wilkes outbreak was at the Tyson complex in Wilkesboro and county officials have mentioned Tyson by name in referring to the outbreak. DHHS officials have told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot that they can’t disclose numbers of people testing positive for CLOVID-19 in meat processing plant outbreaks due to G.S. 130A-143.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard has said she can’t release the number of positive cases among those tested at the Tyson in Wilkesboro by Matrix due to the DHHS policy.
Change in DHHS policy?
After being pressured by several newspapers, other media outlets and advocacy groups, DHHS reversed a policy of not publicly announcing details of nursing homes and other group living facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks. The agency began releasing the names of these facilities and numbers of confirmed COVID-19 at each in late April.
DHHS had refused to make this information public before then, citing the N.C. Reportable Disease Confidentiality statute as the basis for this position.
DHHS communications officials have told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot since late April that the agency was considering making the same change regarding information about COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary, addressed the issue in a press conference Wednesday when questioned by reporters. Cohen was asked three times then if the state would release details about outbreaks at individual meat processing plants.
The first two times Cohen was questioned, she only talked about how the state was supporting meat processing plant workers. The third time, Cohen said only one state distributes that kind of information. “But I hear you. Everyone wants more and more information, so stay tuned for more information about that,” she added.
The News & Observer in Raleigh reported last week that there are least 23 outbreaks at processing plants in Bertie, Bladen, Burke, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Surry, Union, Wilkes and Wilson counties.
90% from “direct contact”
The Wilkes Health Department website says 90% of the 412 confirmed Wilkes cases resulted from “direct contact” with people who had COVID-19 and were identified.
Fifty-nine percent of these 412 cases were male, 39% unknown and 2% unknown. Forty-seven percent were ages 26-50, 37% were 51 and older, 14% were 25 and younger and 2% unknown.
Forty percent had a North Wilkesboro zip code. Other zip codes were Wilkesboro, 28%; Millers Creek, 9; Moravian Falls, 5%; Hays, 5%; and Boomer, 2%; Roaring River, 2%. Listed with 1% each are Ferguson, Ronda, McGrady and Elkin postal routes in Wilkes.
Cohen said the state’s continued rise in COVID-19 cases is due to increased testing. Overall, 7.5% of all tests have come back positive.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide rose by 853 to 17,982 Saturday as the state continues to ramp up coronavirus testing. That was the biggest single-day jump since the state’s first COVID-19 case was recorded on March 3.
There were 652 deaths reported Saturday, up from 641 on Friday, and 481 people hospitalized, a decrease of 12 people.
Avery is the only county without any positive cases.
New testing criteria
Also last week, DHHS announced new guidelines for determining who is tested for COVID-19. According to the updated guidelines, the following populations have access to testing regardless of symptoms:
• anyone with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19;
• close contacts of known positive cases, regardless of symptoms;
• persons who live in or have regular contact with high-risk settings (such as long-term care facility, homeless shelter, correctional facility and migrant farm worker camp);
• persons who are at high risk of severe illness (such as people over 65 years of age, people of any age with underlying health conditions;
• persons who come from historically marginalized populations;
• health care workers or first responders (such as EMS, law enforcement, fire department and military);
• front-line and essential workers (grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, etc.) in settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
Previously, the policy in Wilkes and many other counties was for only health care workers, people 65 and older, those with underlying health conditions and people with severe symptoms to be tested. People with mild symptoms were asked to self-isolate at home.
Increased testing and contact tracing are part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to ease restrictions. Cooper said Tuesday that he doesn't think the state will be ready to start phase two until May 22.
Health officials maintain that staying home is the best way to slow the spread of the virus. People are advised to remember the 3 Ws when going out: Wear a face covering. Wait at least six feet apart. Wash hands often with soap and water.