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At least 317 cases of COVID-19 identified among Shenandoah Valley poultry workers

File photo of a poultry processing plant. | Credit: WDBJ
File photo of a poultry processing plant. | Credit: WDBJ(WHSV)
Published: May. 27, 2020 at 6:08 PM EDT
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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, poultry workers and the meatpacking industry continue to be impacted by the virus, nationwide and here in the Shenandoah Valley.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the poultry industry," Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, acknowledged.

During this time, Bauhan, who helps represent poultry plants around Virginia, said they've seen challenges to the workforce, supply chain, and distribution, so they've made some adjustments.

"Trying to social distance people in breakrooms and work areas, and along the processing line when sometimes it's difficult to social distance, they've put in plastic dividers," Bauhan said.

Recent numbers confirmed by Dr. Laura Kornegay show 317 people employed by area poultry plants living in the Central Shenandoah Health District have tested positive for COVID-19. That number was as of May 20, and Dr. Kornegay said it's tough to share numbers that specific on a daily basis, though they are tracking the trends.

Exactly which poultry plants those people work for has not been clarified though, because data on the exact locations of outbreaks in Virginia is only available when facilities choose to let the health department release information about them. That's due to the Virginia Department of Health's interpretation of state code as treating facilities as "persons" while prohibiting the release of health information about persons.

of cases in a given area by letting you see the number of cases confirmed in any particular zip code, not just by locality, but it provides no details on outbreaks or any particular facilities.

However, Virginia health commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver has said in several of the governor's COVID-19 briefings that the

, are likely connected to outbreaks at poultry plants, though none of the facilities have confirmed any information about exact case numbers to WHSV.

New Market Poultry, which has more than 100 employees working on a daily basis,

, though no specific numbers were provided.

Over the mountain in West Virginia, where the health department does not treat facilities as persons, we know

.

The Cargill in Dayton confirmed to WHSV in late April

, but again, no specific case numbers were provided.

However, as case trends now decline across the commonwealth, Bauhan said he's received information recently from the VDH that shows the poultry plants which have had cases are seeing numbers heading down.

"The trajectory is positive, the cases are way down from a few weeks ago, and the number of workers that are quarantined at home is way down," Bauhan said.

He added the poultry industry employs well over 5,000 people in the area, and while he said their hearts go out to anyone affected by the virus, that number is a small portion. Even after the pandemic is over, Bauhan said there will likely be a lasting impact.

"The things that we've learned in this situation, certainly we've learned the hard way in some cases, but I think it will help us and put us in a good step moving into the future," Bauhan said.

Virginia Attorney General Herring recently

, claiming the industry "has continued to operate the plants without instituting adequate health and safety measures."

However, the Virginia Poultry Federation has said they've taken " significant and unprecedented steps" to protect workers, including increased sanitation and cleaning, increased frequency of hand washing, required face masks or shields for employees, social distancing in common areas and, if possible on production lines, plexiglass dividers between workers on production lines, and heightened employee screenings.

, there are 1,447 total COVID-19 cases identified in the Central Shenandoah Health District, with 746 in Harrisonburg and 483 in Rockingham County, the areas with the most workers employed in the poultry industry.

, the date on which the 317 numbers for poultry workers was confirmed, there were 1,271 cases in the district, with 675 in Harrisonburg and 414 in Rockingham County.

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