NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (foreground) and Gov. Roy Cooper during a March 27 coronavirus briefing. Mandy Cohen
NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (foreground) and Gov. Roy Cooper during a March 27 coronavirus briefing.

With close to 1,000 confirmed cases among meat processing workers, NC officials in Cooper’s administration must put public health first. 

Up until this point, there haven’t been many questions Mandy Cohen couldn’t answer.

Secretary of NC’s Department of Health and Human Services, Cohen leads an agency in Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration that has faced the impossible task of managing COVID-19

And she has performed as cooly, capably, and efficiently as any public health official in the nation. 

Four weeks ago, epidemiologists predicted there would be 250,000 cases in North Carolina by June 1, but as of Thursday morning, the state’s total count sat at 13,397. North Carolina has “flattened the curve” better than most, despite an unpalatable shortage of supplies, potshots from erstwhile candidates, and erratic leadership in D.C. 

Cohen’s piloting in the Cooper administration deserves a great deal of that credit. 

But on Wednesday, as reporters peppered Cohen with questions about an emerging outbreak in North Carolina’s meat production plants, Cohen struggled to explain why the state isn’t publicly disclosing the names of meat packing plants grappling with the highly contagious virus.

Asked to name names, Cohen talked about why the industry is so crucial to the food supply. She talked about technical assistance her agency is offering to these private employers as well as the guidelines that recommend proper sanitation, distancing when possible, and temperature checks.

But she did not name the plants. Of course, Cohen, who fields reporters’ questions like a tennis ace fields an opponent’s best serve, did not miss the question. It is a question the state wasn’t prepared to answer at this time, for whatever reason. 

Asked again by a second reporter, Cohen acknowledged it at least. “I hear you,” Cohen said. “Everybody wants more and more information. Stay tuned.”

It is not so much that everybody wants more information. It is that everybody needs more information. It is that everybody deserves more information. 

To this point, state officials have been unable to provide a credible reason why this information should not be public. 

It should have been public yesterday, a week ago, two weeks ago. The safety of thousands of North Carolina workers depends on it.

The reluctance of private companies to be open is understandable. The reluctance of public officials is not. 

North Carolina leaders faced a similar quandary weeks back when an alliance of media organizations threatened legal action to compel the state to release the names of nursing homes or other congregated living facilities stricken by the highly contagious virus. 

Ultimately, the state complied. And that running list, which is published on DHHS’ COVID-19 dashboard, has provided vital  information to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents and their families. Almost 60% of North Carolina’s coronavirus deaths as of today were reported in congregated living facilities

It is true that state leaders are entrusted with the health of our people and the vitality of our economy, but the health of our people must come first. There is no livelihood without lives.

Safety is never really about partisan or corporate affiliation. It’s not about whether the information is flattering to Gov. Cooper or Smithfield Foods, which operates the largest hog slaughterhouse in the nation in rural Bladen County.  

And while, as the CDC points out, there is no evidence of coronavirus transmission associated with food, transmission for the thousands of North Carolinians in close quarters in meat processing facilities is a paramount concern. 

As multiple outlets have reported this week, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among meat-processing workers more than doubled in the last seven days, nearing 1,000. It concerns at least 20 facilities in 12  mostly rural counties, where  a disproportionate share of the residents are poor and uninsured. 

Indeed, this is not simply a public health issue. These plants are located in North Carolina’s rural reaches, and they depend on blue-collar workers, on natives and immigrants, on Black and white and Latinx and Native American people.  

No one should have to choose between their job and their life, but if our state’s workers must do so, they should be allowed to make that decision with all of the information available. 

The next time Cohen or Cooper take the podium, as they have done on an almost daily basis since this crippling pandemic began, reporters should lob the same question. 

Ask it the next day too. And the day after. And the day after that. Ask it until they get the answer right.