DECATUR — An employee at the Wayne Farms poultry processing plant has tested positive for COVID-19, and numerous other employees are being tested, a spokesman for the company said Wednesday.
It’s the first confirmed case at the Decatur plant, but Wayne Farms’ Albertville plant has had 80 confirmed cases.
Meat processors are hot spots for the coronavirus nationally. As of April 27, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states had a total of 4,913 infected employees. Twenty of those workers had died from the disease, and about 22 plants have closed.
“I can confirm that we do have a positive at our Decatur processing plant,” Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said. “That number could change because testing is still going on and there’s a period of time it takes to get the tests turned around. We’ve got 15 negative test results through contact tracing.”
Singleton said all workers who have been in direct contact — meaning within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more — with an employee who tests positive are sent home.
“If you test positive then you’re quarantined for 14 days and you have to get a certification from a health care provider that you’re free of COVID-19 before you come back,” Singleton said.
He did not know the county of residence of the employee who tested positive. The Alabama Department of Public Health reports COVID-19 cases by county of residence.
An emergency order by State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris requires people who have tested positive to remain in quarantine for 14 days, during which time they “shall not leave their place of residence for any reason other than to seek necessary medical treatment.”
Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said the close proximity of workers at poultry processing plants makes it difficult to avoid viral spread.
“They’ve been pretty lucky to get this far and only have one,” Smith said. “Where you’ve got a lot of people that are together, it just makes it more difficult. The potential for spread is there.”
She pointed out that infected employees at processing plants were not necessarily exposed at the workplace.
“There’s three parts to everybody’s life — their work life, their home life and their activity life. Where did this person become exposed? It could have been anywhere. That’s why everybody needs to be on alert,” Smith said.
She said Wayne Farms and other poultry plants have taken significant steps to avoid contagion among their employees.
“They have been on alert for a long time in terms of the things they need to do because they have a congregate working situation. I have not talked to the Decatur plant specifically, but I do know their sister plant in Albertville has put partitions up and done everything that public health has asked them to do,” Smith said.
Singleton said all of Wayne Farms' plants are going to great lengths to avoid infection at the workplace.
“All employees as they enter the plant have their temperature taken with an infrared sensor,” he said. “We have occupational health and safety folks on the floor who are looking for flu-like symptoms. If employees feel like they’re having flu-like symptoms, they can report that to the occupational health and safety folks, who can then have them tested to determine if they have an actual case of COVID.”
He said plastic workplace station dividers separate those employees who are working in close proximity to each other; all employees must wear masks, smocks and gloves; employees with symptoms are required to remain off work for 14 days and must have a health certification to return; break room tables have been moved farther apart to allow more social distancing; and chalk lines are used to maintain distance between employees as they enter and exit the plant.
“We have a little slower production going on, which means people can spread out a little more in the plant for social distancing,” Singleton said. “We’re trying to do everything the CDC and public health folks are telling us we need to do.
"We’re going above and beyond our shift-change sanitation that normally happens. There’s a sanitation program now where pretty much every hard surface and nook and cranny in the facility is sprayed down.”
He said employees also receive frequent briefings educating them on how to avoid infection outside the workplace, including frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks in public.
In addition to the 80 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Albertville plant, Singleton said, “we’ve had small numbers of cases in our south Alabama plants. We have plants in Enterprise, Union Springs and Dothan. We’re at the point now where we’re not disclosing total numbers because it’s pretty hard to stay on top of it.”