NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (at the podium) addresses the coronavirus May 5 in Raleigh as Gov. Roy Cooper looks on. (Photo via DHHS pool photographer)
NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (at the podium) addresses the coronavirus May 5 in Raleigh as Gov. Roy Cooper looks on. (Photo via DHHS pool photographer)

North Carolina, home to the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, has seen coronavirus infections in processing facilities rising quickly.

Under pressure from reporters to name meat processing facilities with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in North Carolina, the state’s top healthcare official Mandy Cohen said Wednesday to “stay tuned.”

State officials reportedly confirmed this week that the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in such facilities exceeded 800.

For context, the number of cases in congregate living facilities like nursing homes, prisons and residential care facilities surpassed 6,000 as of Wednesday morning. But infections in meat processing facilities are rapidly increasing. As The Bladen Journal noted Tuesday, this week’s confirmed cases represents about a 57% increase over seven days.     

That includes outbreaks in 19 facilities located in plants in Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Robeson, Sampson, Union, Wilkes and Wilson counties. Companies behind the state’s largest processing plants have been resistant to give information on the number of workers testing positive, putting pressure on state health officials to disclose what they know.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no evidence of COVID-19 transmission associated with food. 

Cohen, secretary of NC’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), did not answer the first time a reporter asked Wednesday if her agency would publish the names of companies with ongoing outbreaks, but she acknowledged the question the second time a reporter asked. 

“I hear you,” Cohen said. “Everybody wants more and more information. Stay tuned.”

Cohen and Gov. Roy Cooper faced similar pressure last month to identify outbreaks in congregate living facilities, particularly given elderly patients are especially vulnerable to the contagious virus. DHHS began reporting those outbreaks in late April.

But to this point, Cohen said her agency has primarily served as a “technical assistant” for meat processing facilities.  

“We have done a lot of work to make sure workers in those plants are protected and we are keeping them open,” Cohen said, adding that the industry is “heavily regulated” already by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

North Carolina is home to numerous production plants, including what is believed to be the world’s largest pork plant in Smithfield Foods’ Bladen County facility. That facility was already identified by reporters last month as being included among the state’s outbreaks. 

Advocates for workers’ rights have questioned whether plants are keeping employees informed and prepared during outbreaks.
An order from President Trump last month, declaring meat processing facilities to be “critical infrastructure,” complicated matters although it has not stopped plants across the US from closing as the pandemic spread.

“We’re offering our assistance to make sure these organizations are doing everything they can to protect the workers and slow the spread of the virus in their plant,” Cohen said Wednesday. 

Cohen did not provide many specifics on the agency’s assistance, but she said the state is making sure workers have access to testing. 

State officials issued guidelines last month for meat producers, including recommendations for contact tracing, sanitation practices, and a ready supply of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. 

“Agriculture and agribusinesses are on the front lines of this crisis just like hospital workers, first responders, grocery store staff, truck drivers and many more,” state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in an April 21 release. “Their work is different, but every bit as critically important. We are in contact with the companies, public health officials and our federal inspection partners. The companies are working to implement recommendations of the CDC and state public health and local officials to keep these facilities operating and producing a stable supply of safe and nutritious food.”

Cohen emphasized multiple times Wednesday that state officials believe meat processing facilities to be crucial to the food supply.  

“These are plants that need to continue to run,” she said. 

Cohen’s briefing came a day after Gov. Cooper announced plans to begin lowering social distancing restrictions Friday, part of a phased approach to easing stay-at-home orders.

The first phase of the Cooper administration’s plan will allow retail businesses to open at 50% capacity, among other measures, although certain businesses like bars, salons and gyms will remain closed. 

Cohen said Wednesday that officials hope to move to a second phase in two weeks after the state reviews data on the virus. As of the Wednesday morning, there were 12,758 confirmed cases in North Carolina and 477 deaths associated with COVID-19, although Cooper administration leaders said social distancing has been effective at “flattening the curve” in the state.