The United States’ meat and poultry processing has been one of the hardest-hit industries by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the close-proximity nature of workers in factories, but it appears that much-needed employee vaccinations are on the way.
Bloomberg reported Feb. 4 that Tyson Foods — the US’ largest meat supplier — has begun vaccinating workers at its poultry processing plant in Wilkesboro, NC, a plant where the company said 570 of its 2,244 employees and contractors had tested positive for the virus as of this past May.
A spokesperson for Tyson told Bloomberg that Feb. 3 was the first time the vaccine was administered at a Tyson facility to employees who aren’t classified as medical professionals. The company had previously given the vaccine to nurses and health-services staff through a partnership with Matrix Medical Network — a clinical services provider that Tyson has been administering COVID-19 testing through since late April of last year.
The spokesperson told Bloomberg that 45 Tyson employees received a vaccine shot on Feb. 3 and that Wilkesboro employees were eligible for it under North Carolina’s second phase of vaccine distribution that includes people ages 65 and older.
The Tyson news came a week after poultry supplier Foster Farms announced Feb. 2 that starting on that day, it was providing the Moderna vaccine to 1,000 employees at its Fresno, CA processing facility.
“Foster Farms has implemented a comprehensive set of employee health protections and mitigations in adherence with CDC guidance, and implemented one of the most extensive COVID-19 employee testing programs in California, administering more than 100,000 COVID-19 tests in the last 5 months,” the company said. “While these steps are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, vaccination provides the greatest form of worker protection. Foster Farms hopes this program will serve as a model for vaccination at other company facilities and for the entire California food processing industry.”
Foster said that vaccination at the Fresno facility is voluntary and that it expects most of its 1,000 employees at the plant to participate. The vaccine is administered on-site by the Fresno Department of Public Health through trained staff of Vons Pharmaceutical and under the supervision of a registered nurse. Foster Farms will compensate employees for time spent during the process. Foster said it expected to complete administering the first vaccine dose at the facility on Friday and plans to administer the second dose in early March. The company will track employee participation in the vaccination program to ensure that dosage periodicity requirements are met.
The Tyson and Foster Farms vaccination developments came the same week that a US House Subcommittee announced that it had opened an investigation into virus cases and deaths among US meatpacking plant workers and cited failures of the Trump administration to protect meat industry employees. On Feb. 1, the subcommittee sent letters to OSHA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA informing them of the investigation. According to the subcommittee, there had been at least 54,000 positive cases of COVID-19 among workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the US as of late January, with 270 resulting deaths.
On Feb. 2, Tyson announced that it was piloting a new program in partnership with Matrix Medical to assess, address, verify and monitor the effectiveness of the company’s efforts to protect workers from COVID-19. The company said that more than a dozen Tyson plant locations, including some of its largest facilities, are participating. Six have already received safety verification and seve more are in the process of being assessed.