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Controlling the virus in food processing plants

The Philadelphia Macaroni Company processing plant in Spokane was the site of a large COVID-19 outbreak in Spokane County. The plant closed after just one case was confirmed.  (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)
The Philadelphia Macaroni Company processing plant in Spokane was the site of a large COVID-19 outbreak in Spokane County. The plant closed after just one case was confirmed. (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Lay Paw wants to be a biologist or a virologist. She plans to study biology this fall at Seattle Pacific University. The 18-year-old just graduated from Kennewick High School, despite just a month earlier, confronting COVID-19 personally, which her whole family has since recovered from, and using her voice to advocate for the safety of workers at the Tyson meat plant in Wallula.

Paw’s advocacy is personal.

Her father, Bay Lay Poe, has worked at the Tyson plant in Wallula since the family moved to the United States, specifically to the Tri-Cities area in 2008. Paw was born in a Thai refugee camp, and her parents and family, who are Karen, had to flee Burma before her birth. The Burmese military regime has persecuted, killed and driven away many ethnic groups, including the Karen, for decades. Paw and her family came to the United States in 2008 from the Thai refugee camp through a United Nations refugee program.

Many immigrants and refugees have found work at the Tyson plant. Poe speaks Burmese and Karen, and Paw translated some of the materials about COVID-19 for her father when the outbreak began.

In early April before too many team members began displaying symptoms, Poe began to feel sick. He stayed home, and his symptoms seemed to get worse. This was before physical distancing was enforced in lunch areas and masks were required.

The family decided he should go get tested for the virus. He went to a community clinic and tested positive, and his wife tested positive eventually . Paw said she believes her siblings and her got the virus as well, but they did not get tested. Paw lost her sense of taste, a now more-commonly recognized symptom of COVID-19.

When her father tested positive, Paw and other family members of Tyson workers started a petition to the governor and the state’s U.S. senators. It initially called for state health officials to shut the plant down before the virus spread to more people. It also called for stronger protections for workers as well as access to COVID-19 testing and informational materials in the more than 10 different languages spoken by workers at the plant.

Paw said the petition was not about boycotting or fighting Tyson.

“I wanted to work with them and come up with a plan so we could be on the same ground,” she said. “It was just to protect the workers.”

Paw said the situation felt similar to her family’s lived experiences, fleeing an oppressive government in Burma.

“We’ve always been controlled, and no one was willing to fight or stand up against the uncertainty of everything,” Paw said.

It took several weeks, 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases and the death of one worker before Tyson officials decided to shut the plant down on April 23, although the Walla Walla Department of Community Health had the authority to shut it down sooner and chose not to.

Eventually, 277 of the more than 1,000 workers tested would test positive. Three workers died due to the outbreak, the Tri-City Herald reported.

When Paw helped start the petition, she said it was only to prevent more cases and to get health officials to shut the plant down, which she believes happened too late.

“At first, it was only to prevent more cases and deaths because there hadn’t been any deaths before I got involved, so it was surprising to see that it was three people who died,” she said. “And it could have been avoided if they closed earlier.”

Paw, who is the youngest of three, and her siblings took care of their parents throughout April. Their friends from their church brought them food, supplies and masks as the family isolated themselves at home for a few weeks. Thankfully, none of them got so ill that they required hospitalization. Eventually fevers broke, and after he tested negative, Poe returned to work.

Now masks are required at work and plexiglass barriers separate workers at Tyson. Several other safety precautions are taken, due to strict guidance released by state agencies in the months since the outbreak. Paw said her father once came home from work with extra protective gear. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries State issued some guidance for food processing warehouses in mid-April. State health officials and did not issue COVID-19 guidance specifically for food processing plants until May 27, long after the outbreak hit the Tyson plant.

‘Difficult to quench’

Food processing plants have been ravished by the virus in many parts of the United States – but not all of them.

Fifteen miles down the road from Tyson in Pasco, there is a Lamb Weston french fry plant. Workers at this plant are represented by Teamsters Local 839, and so far, the plant has not had a significant outbreak.

Russell Shjerven, secretary of Teamsters Local 839, said union leaders and managers started talking about physical distancing and safety precautions early on in the pandemic. A person at the plant did test positive in late March, but the management reacted swiftly.

“They shut the plant down for two weeks, and brought in a third party to clean and disinfect,” Shjerven said.

From his perspective, having a union in this instance made a significant difference between the Tyson plant outbreak and the Lamb Weston plant.

“Either you have someone who can bargain working conditions or you don’t,” he said.

The Tyson plant is not unionized .

Workers are continuing to return to work at the plant, a statement from Tyson says, and the plant is operating near capacity again. Tyson has contracted with a medical services company that has a mobile unit onsite at the plant. Workers get screened before each shift, must wear protective face masks and physical distancing is part of the lines, work stations and break rooms.

The last case connected to the Tyson plant was reported on May 5, by the Benton Franklin Health District. Although the plant is located in Walla Walla County, the majority of workers live in nearby Benton and Franklin counties in the Tri-Cities.

Since the plant reopened on May 5, there have been no new associated cases, according to the Walla Walla Department of Community Health. The local health authority has knowledge of confirmed cases and can help assist the Tyson plant with infection prevention, but the enforcement of any required safety precautions falls to L&I.

Outbreaks at food processing plants have impacted communities throughout Washington state, and in turn workers would sometimes unknowingly bring the virus back home to their families. At the Tyson plant, more than half of the workers who tested positive did not show symptoms.

Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state epidemiologist, said that his team’s work with food processing facilities has taught them that social distancing, actually keeping six feet between people or putting physical barriers like plexiglass between workers is important. Shifts can be staggered, lunchrooms and carpooling, where numerous people would be gathered close together, must be changed. Face coverings both at work and in the community are also essential, he said.

In Spokane County, the largest outbreak recorded at a worksite publicly to date was at the Philadelphia Macaroni Co. pasta plant, where 35 workers contracted the virus, which led to dozens of other cases in their families and close contacts. The plant closed after just one case was confirmed.

The company was taking all of the precautionary measures necessary, local health officials said, but one slip up can mean an outbreak with a virus like COVID-19. Asymptomatic spread, which can occur when a person has the virus but does not have any of the associated symptoms to show it, is possible.

Going forward, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said he believes work sites need to be working very, very closely with infection prevention specialists or reach out to local health jurisdictions for guidance.

“The onus is on the employer, the worksite and the organization to do its work to ensure the safety of not only its employees but also more broadly the safety of the entire community ,” Lutz said. “They have to be willing and active partners and collaborators with public health because again you continue to see across the country that these outbreaks can quickly become significant fires that are difficult to quench.”

Enforcement possible

One of the main places a person can be exposed to the virus is at their workplace, especially in those worksites deemed “essential,” meaning they never closed as a result of the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order earlier this spring. As a result of this, this month, L&I mandated that all employees are required to wear masks to varying safety degrees depending on the line of work.

Anne Soiza, assistant director at L&I in the occupational safety and health division, said that while her division is doing what they can to help and train businesses statewide on safety protocols, the community members need to also buy into safety precautions to keep everyone safe.

“We want to be clear that if you don’t mask up in the workplace or people don’t mask up when they’re shopping or in retail stores, we’re really not doing everything we can do stop community spread,” she told reporters last week.

So far, L&I has received more than 4,000 complaints about businesses operating out of alignment with the phase of the governor’s reopening plan they are in or not taking necessary virus precautions. The department has contacted hundreds of businesses about compliance so far, Soiza said.

A recent study from the Department of Health found that workers in the manufacturing industry, which includes food processing plants, were the second-most impacted industry with COVID-19. People who work in health care were first. While that study did not ask whether or not a person contracted the virus at the workplace, work sites where people must gather in close conditions remain risky work environments for virus transmission.

L&I produced comprehensive guidance for every business operating in the state in order to safely allow their workers to work during COVID-19. These guidelines are enforceable, but sometimes proving that something went wrong can be challenging. If workers feel unsafe in their workplace, they can file a complaint with L&I. Workers from the department can perform inspections when there is a complaint with evidence.

Recently, L&I investigated four or five food and fruit packing warehouses in Yakima but found no violations or penalties, Tim Church, director of communications at L&I said. In order to be fined or cited, inspectors must find evidence of the violation, Church said, which is sometimes resolved by the time inspectors arrive. Nevertheless, all COVID-19 guidance from L&I is enforceable like any other workplace safety guidance.

“We’re actively out there checking into complaints about social distancing, cleaning at work, using masks. Those are absolutely the kind of things we’re regularly inspecting,” he said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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