Gainesville’s ‘Poultry Capital of the World’ braces for COVID-19 spread

By: - April 24, 2020 5:00 am

Employees at the Gainesville Tyson Foods chicken plant work the processing line in close quarters, but with a plastic barrier between them. Four Tyson workers died in April of COVID-19 at the company’s Camilla plant in south Georgia. Contributed by Tyson Foods

GAINESVILLE – Fear of a potential spread of the novel coronavirus under close-up working conditions makes the people who toil in the northeast Georgia chicken plants nervous as health care providers brace for the possibility the worst might still be to come.

Meat and poultry plants across the country and in south Georgia are becoming hot spots for the COVID-19 disease. In some cases, plant operators are sending the entire workforce home to self-isolate.

So far, the Hall County poultry plants aren’t reporting outbreaks. The state Department of Public Health reported 963 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hall on April 23 and health care providers in the county of about 204,000 people are preparing for the novel coronavirus’ expected peak in May.

At Northeast Georgia Medical Center, state health officials helped the hospital set up a mobile unit outside the emergency department to expand care and triage capacity. The hospital added more intensive care capacity and increased its Spanish language materials to help people who don’t speak English.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville just opened a mobile hospital unit outside the emergency department to expand care and triage capacity during the novel coronavirus outbreak. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

And while the virus’ peak hasn’t come yet for the region, Gov. Brian Kemp announced some businesses including hair salons and tattoo parlors will be allowed to reopen as early as today. As of Thursday, the Gainesville hospital reported it was treating 73 patients who tested positive for COVID-19.

The highly contagious disease is spreading disproportionately among Hall’s Latino population. Latino patients account for about 53% of Hall County’s positive results, although they only account for about 29% of the population.

And Latinos also disproportionately work in the kill plants and the cook plants that make Hall County industry synonymous with poultry. Broilers are Georgia’s top agricultural product.

“The needs and fears that we’ve seen are mostly about how people are going to pay their bills if they’ve been quarantined, how they’re going to eat if they’re quarantined,” said Vanesa Sarazua, the leader of Hispanic Alliance Georgia. The nonprofit’s work includes literacy services and legal referrals. But lately it’s the advice for places hosting food drives and their health guidance that’s in demand.  

Some workers who don’t have citizenship or legal residency avoid hospitals or accepting public benefits because they fear that it could attract the attention of  immigration officials. 

The saddest part, she said, is probably that some people are navigating this illness on their own. The thought of working so close to coworkers on the production line is scary, too. 

Some plants are making changes like cleaning work surfaces more often, setting seats far apart in break rooms, taking employees’ temperatures as they arrive and installing plastic partitions between workers. 

The changes are coming slowly, Sarazua said. “As slow as everyone else dealing with this new pandemic.” 

Poultry generates about $1 million or more in two-thirds of Georgia’s 159 counties and it is still going pretty strong even during the governor’s shelter-in-place order, according to Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles.

Poultry and meat plants are open as an essential industry meant to keep grocery stores supplied. It has come at a high cost for some.

Four Tyson poultry plant workers in Camilla have died due to COVID-19.

Around the country, some meat and poultry plants closed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. This month, COVID-19 breakouts closed a Smithfield Farms pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and suspended work at a Tyson Foods pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.

A Tyson Foods spokesman declined to say what it would take to close a Georgia plant or what the company knows about COVID-19 positive test rates at its operations.

The company is installing infrared temperature scanners, requiring protective face coverings and deep-cleaning its facilities, Tyson’s Gary Mickelson said by email. The company said it relaxed its attendance policy in March to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick. 

Perdue Farms, a large Gainesville poultry producer, said it is focused on extra cleaning, social distancing and other safety measures. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Perdue Farms, another large Gainesville poultry producer, said it is also focused on extra cleaning, social distancing and other safety measures. Some plant managers are staggering breaks to keep workers separated, or sent workers to take breaks outside. 

The four-hospital Northeast Georgia Health System that includes the Gainesville medical center started setting up a coronavirus task force in January, when the first COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were reported.  

Physicians started offering video visits to help keep sick people at home. Sample collection is done at drive-thrus so patients who think they might have COVID-19 don’t have to go inside hospital emergency departments where vulnerable patients wait for care. The system recently added 43 intensive care unit beds, bringing the total to 134.

“We have created more materials and messages in Spanish than ever before and are working with the Latino Chamber, Hispanic community members and schools to reach members of our community for whom English might not be their first language,” said hospital system COO Michael Covert by email.

To contain the pandemic’s spread, Covert said, it’s more critical than ever that the hospital work outside its walls, alongside other health care providers, businesses and nonprofits.

It was Spanish-speaking group physician Dr. Antonio Rios, who took questions from the public during a Facebook Live event organized by Hispanic Alliance

Covert said the community is responding to the crisis with support for health care workers. People are delivering food to the hospital, donating to the COVID-19 relief fund and posting signs to thank hospital workers.

A state mobile intensive care unit is set to arrive at the main hospital in downtown Gainesville on May 5 with 20 more beds.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008. Her written work and data journalism has appeared in online and print outlets including The (Macon) Telegraph, Creative Loafing and