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CDC dispatches team to Delmarva to aid health departments in wider COVID-19 testing

by | May 1, 2020

WASHINGTON — In an executive order April 27, President Donald Trump ordered meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over growing coronavirus cases and the impact on the nation’s food supply.
The order uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to keep production plants open and prevent a shortage of chicken, pork, and other meat on American supermarket shelves. 
The order comes after industry leaders warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days because of the virus, which has forced some of the largest plants to close and others to slow production.
“This executive order will give needed assistance to Delmarva’s chicken processing companies by sending food supply chain resources to plants, giving them even more ways to keep workers safe and protected from coronavirus,” Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., said in a statement. “By resolving inconsistencies among states in enforcing CDC guidelines, the order is a good first step towards a uniform standard for worker safety during this crisis in meat and chicken processing.”
Poultry plants in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula have been experiencing temporary closures and staff shortages due to COVID-19 and the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware wrote a joint letter to President Donald Trump requesting a “fully coordinated approach” from the federal government to deal with the rapidly developing outbreaks. In particular, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam expressed concerns that medical facilities on Virginia’s Eastern Shore could quickly become overwhelmed if the situation isn’t contained.
On Monday April 26, Northam said a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention including epidemiologists, contact tracers and language specialists who speak Haitian Creole arrived on Delmarva to assist the state health departments and local health departments, with conducting wider-scale testing to “determine the actual scope of the problem” at the poultry plants and take steps to contain the outbreaks.
Northam said that the plants have taken safety measures but that he is still concerned about a potential rise in cases in rural areas where medical resources could be overwhelmed.
On April 27, Delaware Gov. John Carney declared Sussex County a hot spot for COVID-19 and announced the initial schedule for the State of Delaware’s Coordination and Care community testing sites.
According to a governor’s press release, testing is intended to reach high-risk populations, including those with symptoms consistent with COVID-19; those living or working with someone diagnosed with COVID-19; family members or housemates of those working in the poultry industry; and those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, or compromised immune systems. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 26 released joint coronavirus-related interim guidance for meat processing facilities.
Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, said CDC’s guidance reiterates many already identified mitigation measures including social distancing, engineering controls to minimize potential contact, protective gear and face coverings, shift staggering, health screenings, training and awareness, and financial incentives not to report to work sick.  
“The biggest challenge we are experiencing is inconsistencies among state and local health departments and government officials who, in many circumstances, are developing their own criteria for maintaining operations with little or no consideration to previously-issued guidance which adds to confusion and can lead to unnecessary shutdowns,” Brown said. “This patchwork approach is posing grave risk to the supply chain and threatening great disruption to NCC member companies. There must be a uniform approach across all states. NCC is urging states to immediately adopt CDC, OSHA and USDA guidelines. When considering human health and food supply issues, time is of the essence.”
The executive order is designed, in part, to protect companies from liability if workers end up getting sick. 
Trump on April 27 told reporters that “there’s plenty of supply,” but that supply chains had hit what he called a “legal roadblock.”
“That’ll solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems and we’ll be in very good shape,” he said.
But United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone said that more must be done to protect the safety of workers.
“Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers,” he said in a statement, urging the administration “to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards” and compel companies to provide protective equipment, make daily testing available to workers, and enforce physical distancing, among other measures.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the administration should have acted earlier to put safety measures in place.
“We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” he said.
(Editor’s note: The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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