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How One Tyson Foods In North Carolina Is Protecting Employees From COVID-19

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 250 employees at meatpacking plants across the country have died of COVID-19. Congress is investigating the outbreaks, and companies are trying to stem the coronavirus infections. In North Carolina, one large Tyson Foods poultry plant is making some workplace changes. Keri Brown of member station WFDD has this report.

KERI BROWN, BYLINE: The Tyson complex is nestled in the center of Wilkesboro. It's a massive facility employing around 3,000 people. That's a lot for this small rural community. The town manager of Wilkesboro, Ken Noland, says it's a challenging time for both the region and Tyson.

KEN NOLAND: You put that many people together, you got to have cases. It's impossible not to. And so we all have to realize that the community spread right now has really got us very concerned overall.

BROWN: Like in all states, COVID-19 vaccine supplies are limited. In North Carolina, the state is just beginning to vaccinate those in the food industry and meatpacking plants. Many workers are Black, Hispanic or from low-income neighborhoods. At the Tyson plant, spokesman Derek Burleson says they're bringing the vaccines directly to employees at no cost.

DEREK BURLESON: There will be on-site clinics and facilities to handle the vaccination process. And so we're in the process right now of rolling those out.

BROWN: Burleson says vaccinations are not mandatory, but the company is distributing flyers in several languages with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts. Burleson says Tyson has invested nearly $600 million to transform their facilities, and many changes are there to stay.

BURLESON: When you think about those measures, they include walk-through temperature scanners, workstation dividers, social distancing monitors.

BROWN: Burleson says random COVID-19 testing will continue at its plants. Most recently, the company hired a chief medical officer to help manage and lead its overall response to the pandemic. And they've added 200 nurses and administrative staff to assist at sites. While it's taken the meatpacking industry a year to put these changes in place, that may not be the toughest obstacle. Dr. Julie Swann is with North Carolina State University, an expert in pandemics and the medical supply chain.

JULIE SWANN: One of the biggest challenges in administering vaccine in food processing plants is going to be effectively dealing with vaccine hesitancy and concerns that people have about the vaccine. So they really need to be addressed and tailored to that specific community and that individual.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

BROWN: At St. John Baptiste de la Salle Catholic Church in North Wilkesboro, the Hispanic congregation is growing. Many are employed at the Tyson plant. Olga Landaverde works on the chicken processing line and caught COVID last year.

OLGA LANDAVERDE: (Speaking Spanish).

BROWN: She's not sure whether she'll get vaccinated but is reviewing information Tyson gave her. There's a lot of information out there, she says, and it's hard to know what to trust. That's where Father Jose Rebaque hopes he can play a role, telling his congregants that the COVID vaccine is safe and they should get it.

JOSE REBAQUE: We have to encourage the people not to be so afraid about vaccination because for most of the people, it's a help.

BROWN: Rebaque hopes his members will get this shot because he wants things to return to normal and have his church be full again. For NPR News, I'm Keri Brown in Wilkes County, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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