State officials visited the Fieldale Farms chicken plant in Gainesville Monday. Photo courtesy of Weston Burleson of the Georgia Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner.

Hundreds of Georgia’s poultry workers have tested positive for COVID-19

Nearly 400 workers in Georgia’s prized poultry industry have tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus, and one has died from his illness, according to Georgia Department of Public Health statistics obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The 388 workers who have been sickened by COVID-19 represent about 2% of the estimated 16,500 people employed at 14 chicken processing plants across the state.

Obtained from hospitals and poultry plants, the data do not identify the workers or say where they contracted COVID-19. But the head of Baldwin-based Fieldale Farms said a 63-year-old Hispanic man with “other health issues” who worked at the company’s chicken plant in Cornelia died from the disease this month. Many immigrants and refugees work in the state’s poultry industry.

“The biggest challenge for these employees is the community widespread transmission in the areas where they live, the lack of education about COVID-19, and reluctance to change behaviors,” said Georgia Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam, adding that her agency has received many anecdotal reports of people attending large social gatherings, house parties and religious services.

“Also, most live in multi-generational homes with large numbers of family members (12-14 persons),” she said. “They have no place to self-isolate if they are sick with COVID-19 and the whole family ends up getting sick.”

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News of the illnesses comes as President Donald Trump is vowing to prevent food shortages by ensuring America’s meat and poultry processors “continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible.” He signed a related executive order Tuesday.

Nationwide, at least 20 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 5,000 have been hospitalized for it or are showing symptoms of the disease, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Meanwhile, 22 meatpacking plants have closed during the last two months, resulting in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10% percent drop in beef slaughter capacity, the union said.

Georgia’s $41 billion poultry industry — it directly employs 45,591 people and is responsible for about 15% of the nation’s poultry production — is racing to prevent such disruptions.

“Georgia’s poultry producers have implemented extraordinary measures to protect employees from the COVID-19 virus while continuing to produce over 31 million pounds of chicken and 7 million table eggs daily to restock the supply chains that feed people throughout the United States,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

Giles highlighted the precautions Fieldale Farms has adopted at its chicken processing plants in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia. The employees who work there must don masks, wash their hands in disinfectant and have their temperatures checked before they can go to work each day, said Tom Hensley, president of the Baldwin-based company. Those with high temperatures are referred to a nurse, who asks them a series of questions to determine whether they should be tested for COVID-19. The workers sent home to be tested are paid while they are away.

Eighty-seven of the plants’ 4,000 workers have tested positive for COVID-19, Hensley said. Fifteen have recovered and returned to their jobs.

“Inside the plant itself, we constantly disinfect all public areas, restrooms and breakrooms,” Hensley said. “And there are dividers in between each workstation, so no one is breathing on anyone else. And it has worked.”

In-Depth: Spread of coronavirus has Georgia’s booming poultry industry on edge

Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black toured the Fieldale plant in Gainesville Monday. King said he was impressed with the plant’s “extraordinary efforts to take care of the workers.”

Meanwhile, ominous signs are popping up in Hall County, where much of Georgia’s poultry industry is based. Hall has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the region at 597, state figures show. As of Wednesday afternoon, 1,233 people in Hall had been sickened and 20 had been killed by the disease.

While just under a third of the county’s residents are Hispanic, 56% of those in Hall who have tested positive for COVID-19 are Hispanic, according to data collected by Northeast Georgia Health System and Longstreet Clinic.

“We created more materials in Spanish and worked with the other non-profits, the local Latino Chamber, Hispanic community leaders and local schools to help spread the messages,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, who leads the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Infection Prevention & Control Committee. “We’re also supporting the Georgia Poultry Federation, other area industries and Chambers of Commerce to help keep the region’s workforce safe and healthy.”

Several organizations have teamed up with Northeast Georgia Health System:

• Georgia’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency is sending a 20-bed mobile hospital unit to help Mannepalli’s hospital in Gainesville for COVID-19 patients. It is scheduled to be up and running on May 14.

• Alpharetta-based Jackson Healthcare, a healthcare staffing company, is sending about 100 critical care nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and others to the same Gainesville hospital.

• Good News Clinics, a Christian nonprofit that provides free medical and dental care to uninsured Hall residents, has helped test about 1,500 people for COVID-19 in Gainesville.

• The Northeast Georgia Latino Chamber of Commerce has handed out hundreds of free masks to local residents and encouraged them to follow federal health guidelines.

The chamber’s leader, Norma Hernandez, a bookkeeper and tax preparer who immigrated to America from Honduras, said her message to area Hispanic residents about social distancing is simple: “If you don’t have to, please don’t go to the park. Don’t go anywhere. We are teaching our Latino people to be safe.”

- AJC staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

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