Tyson Foods Inc., Wilkes County’s largest employer, announced Aug. 3 that nearly all of its employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1.

Tyson employees who are members of a union will be subject to the results of union bargaining on this issue, the company stated. Exceptions for medical or religious reasons will be considered.

Employees who are officers or in higher positions must be vaccinated by Sept. 24; other people working in offices by Oct. 1; all other employees by Nov. 1; and all new hires prior to starting work, Tyson announced.

The company said that upon verification in the Tyson Vaccination Verification Program, employees will receive $200 for being fully vaccinated. For employees who are members of unions, this is subject to ongoing discussions with unions.

This is an expansion of the company’s existing policy of compensating workers for up to four hours of regular pay if they’re vaccinated outside of their normal shift or through an external source.

Tyson said almost half of its U.S. workforce has been vaccinated and coronavirus infection rates among employees remain low. Tyson has a workforce of about 2,300 people in Wilkes County, mostly at the company’s chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro.

Donnie King, Tyson president and CEO, stated, “We did not take this decision lightly. We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated…. We take this step today because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety, and we thank them for the work they do, every day, to help us feed this country, and our world.”

King said new variants of COVID-19 are more contagious, more deadly and responsible for most cases in America today.

“In some communities, doctors and hospitals are once again overwhelmed, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting nearly all hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. are among those who are unvaccinated,” he added.

“It is abundantly clear that getting vaccinated is the single most effective thing we can do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.”

A Tyson press release said the action makes the company the largest U.S. food company to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its entire workforce.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect our team members, their families and their communities,” said Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson chief medical officer. “With rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the U.S. unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce.”

The Tyson press release said that since February, Tyson has hosted more than 100 vaccination events for employees across the country and more than 56,000 Tyson employees have been vaccinated so far. “Additional onsite vaccination events will be scheduled, and the company will continue to collaborate with local health departments and healthcare providers to make the vaccine more accessible.”

“Tyson Foods and Matrix Medical have worked together since the beginning of this pandemic to develop and implement strategies to mitigate the risk of the virus to Tyson employees and their families, as well as the communities where they live and work,” said Dr. Daniel Castillo, Matrix chief medical officer and group president.

“Matrix clinicians and Tyson team members have worked hand-in-hand to implement a broad array of workplace safety measures at Tyson, and we now feel the rising number of new cases across the U.S. warrants advanced clinical strategies — including requiring vaccinations.”

Tyson has spent more than $700 million related to COVID-19, including on buying masks, face shields and temperature scanners, installing protective barriers and providing on-site testing and vaccinations and more to help prevent its spread.

Tyson partnered with an independent medical provider to bring medical services on site, hired an additional 200 nurses and its first chief medical officer. Tyson Foods also invested in educating employees, in dozens of languages, about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination.

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