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The Coronavirus Hits Poultry Processing Plants In The South

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Meat processing plants have seen some of the biggest outbreaks of the coronavirus. Now poultry plants across the south are seeing a similar wave. State officials and poultry companies say they are adjusting to protect workers, most of whom are immigrants. But as WABE's Emily Green reports, infection rates continue to surge.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: A small yellow school bus drives through Hall County, Ga., dropping off lunches to mostly low-income Latino families. Right behind them in a car is Jodie Guest. At every stop, she offers face masks to families.

JODIE GUEST: Good morning. No mascara? Si? Do you have masks? Do you need some? Si?

GREEN: The man at the door asks for eight masks - one for every person in the house.

GUEST: I need to go get two more. I'll be right back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, OK.

GREEN: Guest hands them over and moves on. She's giving out so many masks she's running out. Guest is an epidemiologist with Emory University. She says Latinos in Hall County are getting infected at roughly double the rate of everybody else.

GUEST: Many of the Hispanic workers work in the poultry industry, and so there is a large connection between that industry and the number of people who are testing positive for COVID-19.

GREEN: She says there are several factors driving the outbreak. At the Hall County poultry plants, many worked on production lines virtually elbow to elbow. Add to that cramped living conditions, sometimes as many as 15 people in a single house.

GUEST: They're in crowded conditions both during the day and when they're at home. And that's just a breeding ground for COVID-19 to seed inside of a community.

GREEN: And she says some Latinos are reluctant to get tested because they or their family members are in the country illegally. Hall County has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Georgia. This is a huge concern for officials. The poultry industry contributes some $18 billion a year to Georgia's economy. The state's agricultural commissioner Gary Black says the outbreak isn't because of working conditions. He blames how the employees live.

GARY BLACK: You can see that where there have been some elevated cases, the facts are it's not happening at work. It's happening after hours.

GREEN: Across the south, outbreaks at poultry processing plants are driving new coronavirus hotspots. In Alabama, 75 workers tested positive at a poultry plant. In Mississippi, coronavirus infections are surging in two counties that are poultry hubs. Georgia's poultry plants, Black says, are now doing a great job mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, including temperature checks, requiring face masks and putting up disposable plastic curtains between workstations.

BLACK: It's amazing and thoroughly acceptable from a standpoint of providing that extra little bit of cover for the employee.

GREEN: But in North Carolina, Tyson Foods made many of these changes. Even so, it reported this week that nearly 600 workers tested positive for coronavirus at one of its chicken plants. NPR heard from poultry employees across the southeast. They asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation. One worker in Georgia says as late as April, employees were arriving at her plant coughing and with a fever. She says company bosses told sick workers to apply for unemployment, but many didn't qualify because of their immigration status. Another woman worked at a Georgia poultry plant until February, right before the coronavirus outbreak.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: If you tell the boss you don't feel well, the response is, keep working, she says. A third woman works at a Tyson Foods plant in Mississippi as a cleaner on the graveyard shift. She says Tyson gives employees face masks to protect from coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: I'm scared, but if I don't work, who will, she says. She hasn't heard about Tyson giving sick pay. In a statement, Tyson says it's installed state-of-the-art health checkpoints and is paying workers 90% of their normal wage if they test positive for COVID-19. Some companies are doing more. Juan Carlos Lomas owns two chicken plants in Georgia. He arranged for all his employees, including himself, to get tested.

JUAN CARLOS LOMAS: It's needed. And one of the things that we did is that we tried to get our leaders to do it first so they can see that we are going to do it and we are with them.

GREEN: He says workers who test positive are sent home with full pay. Employees with family members that have coronavirus are sent home with two-thirds of their pay. He hopes these measures will slow the virus's spread. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.