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The Wilkes County Health Department issued a press release Sunday saying it it is working with a "local plant" regarding COVID 19. The plant wasn't identified by name.

The press release referenced a statement by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in poultry or other meat processing plants across the state.

A DHHS spokesman told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot that by Friday morning, Wilkes was among eight North Carolina counties with COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry, hog or other meat processing plants.

The Wilkes Health Department press release didn’t mention that Wilkes was among counties with COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry or other meat processing plants. DHHS defines a COVID-19 outbreak at such a facility as two or more cases there.

Except for small custom slaughtering operations, the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro has the only meat processing plants in Wilkes County.

The Wilkes Health Department press release said, “Local government agencies, and state partners are in contact with our local plant to ensure the health and safety of employees,” apparently referencing the Tyson fresh plant in Wilkesboro.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard and the DHHS spokesmen both said they can’t identify specific facilities with outbreaks. The DHHS spokesman said this could result in a violation of the N.C. Reportable Disease Confidentiality statute.

Derek Burleson, Tyson Foods public relations manager, was asked by the Wilkes Journal-Patriot if he could verify a media report stating five people who live outside Wilkes but work at the company’s processing complex in Wilkesboro had tested positive for COVID-19.

Burleson responded, “Since this is an ever-changing situation, we’re not sharing specific numbers or locations about cases. The majority of our plants have had zero cases.”

The Wilkes Journal-Patriot has since been told by local officials that more than five people at the Tyson Foods processing complex in Wilkesboro tested positive for COVID-19.

The health department press release continues, “The (local) plant reports that it is has taken measures to protect employees and decrease the chance of person to person transmission throughout the facility.

“Some of these measures include, but are not limited to, temperature and symptom checks, relaxed attendance policy to reinforce the importance of staying home when sick or to meet childcare needs, as well as restricted visitor access to our facilities.

“They are also providing personal protective equipment and employing social distancing policies where possible. The plant also reports that they have waived the co-pay, co-insurance and deductible for doctor visits or telemedicine for COVID-19 testing as well as eliminated pre-approval or pre-authorization steps.

The press release said the health department “understands organizations that process meat are critical front line workers just like health care workers, first responders, grocery store employees and truck drivers.”

It said the health department ensures that the meat processing plant (in Wilkes) is given all the necessary guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and DHHS.

It said health department staff “speak daily to the plant regarding employee health and any new recommendations that are developed” and worked with the plant to identify a process for how to manage confirmed cases and close contacts to cases.

“If a confirmed (COVID-19) case is identified, then the employee is told to self-isolate for seven days or 72 hours post-fever, whichever is longer. The plant will also send home those who are considered close contacts to a positive case with instructions to self-monitor symptoms and to call a medical professional if symptoms develop.

“With meat processing plants being part of the food supply chain, they are recognized as one of the 16 critical infrastructures for national security.”

The press release said the goal of the plant, the health department and local officials is to ensure that they are taking all necessary steps to make sure the plant can stay open.

Several poultry and other meat processing plants belonging to Tyson Foods and other companies nationwide have closed recently due to employees there having COVID-19.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” stated a letter from John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, in a full-page advertisement in Sunday’s issue of the New York Times.

“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” the letter continued. “As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

The health department press release also said that according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, there is no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with the transmission of COVID-19.

The press release said that since “community transmission” of COVID-19 is occurring in Wilkes County, “every person (in the county) is a potential carrier, even if no symptoms are present, so it is urgent that every person -sick or healthy- stay home to the fullest extent possible and help break the chain of transmission.”

The press release gave the following reminders of self-protection during the COVID-19 pandemic:

• practice social distancing, which means avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, keeping six feet or more between you and others and remaining at home to the greatest extent possible;

• frequent hand washing;

• stay home when you’re sick;

• keep distance from others who are sick;

• avoid touching your face;

• clean and disinfect high touch surfaces in common areas like doorknobs, remotes, light switches, tables and handles;

• wear cloth a mask or face covering when out in public where you may be around people, such as grocery stores or pharmacies

A COVID-19 toll free helpline has been set up to answer general, non-emergent questions at 1-866-462-3821. To submit questions online, go to www.ncpoisoncontrol.org and select “chat.”

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