Tyson Foods (copy)

Of 2,200 workers tested May 4-9 at Tyson’s processing plant in Wilkesboro (above), 570 (25.4%) tested positive for COVID-19.

WILKESBORO — Neither Lowes Foods nor Walmart, separated by U.S. 421, were particularly busy for a Friday morning.

Women and men, mostly older, scurried out clutching a plastic bag or two. Quick trips, only for necessities, carried out as expediently as possible.

More shoppers than not wore masks, a lingering, visible reminder of the ravages of the coronavirus.

A mile or two away, the end of the work week at Tyson Foods — ground zero — proceeded as per normal. Tractor-trailers filled with product rolled out to market, and empty chicken haulers headed toward farms where the birds are raised.

Signs posted near the entrances to the sprawling complex reminded workers of two disparate yet related facts: Our Work Feeds the Nation. …. Now Hiring. All Positions.

It looked to be mostly business as usual, just a few short weeks after Wilkesboro and neighboring North Wilkesboro (combined population 7,700) ranked among the hottest spots for coronavirus outbreaks.

“It’s a lot more lax than it was,” said John, a contract worker who tested positive for coronavirus. “Everybody was on edge. I don’t know if people just accepted that it’s part of everyday life now or what.

“I guess people have just accepted it.”

High rate of infection

Earlier this month, Tyson — along with other large meat and poultry plants across the nation — was subjected to intense scrutiny as the numbers of positive tests for coronavirus spiked sharply.

Plant officials, in the interest of worker safety and calming an anxious public, went to great lengths (and expense) to sanitize their buildings, install hand sanitizing stations and Plexiglas dividers and mount a PR offensive intended to signal that everything was under control.

Indeed, at least one ad aired last week during a morning newscast on local TV that cited the company’s response.

In Wilkesboro from May 4-9, Tyson tested more than 2,200 employees and contractors hired to work inside the complex and found that a whopping 25.4 percent (570) registered positive for coronavirus.

“It’s nasty in there,” said John, a few days after the first test swabs were taken. “We clean everything they touch. I’m not worried about me too much but I am mostly worried about (my wife) getting it.”

John, obviously, isn’t his real name. Tyson Foods takes security very seriously, mostly due to animal-rights protesters. Signs around the complex warn that photography and videotaping aren’t allowed and that the area is under surveillance. Employees say they must sign non-disclosure agreements, so fear of retribution is real.

His main concern, shared by other workers, was that meat and poultry processors seemed more concerned with productivity than public health.

“They’re worried more about getting chicken on the shelves than the people who put the chicken on the shelf,” John said earlier this month.

Still, to be fair, the pressure on company officials was immense. Worries over the food supply were very real, as evidenced by the declaration following widespread outbreaks that the industry was essential.

“Tyson is committed to protecting its team members, who are going above and beyond, to help us maintain a healthy and stable food supply for the nation,” wrote Derrick Burleson, a public-relations manager for Tyson, in an email after reports of the outbreak first surfaced.

Returning to work

Ripple effects from the Tyson outbreak were felt as far away as Winston-Salem because a significant number of workers make the commute up U.S. 421 in exchange for a steady paycheck.

Ten percent (70) of the 698 cases reported on May 17 in Forsyth County, health officials said, were related to the outbreak at Tyson either through people who work there or close contact with an employee.

The outpouring of publicity, much of it negative, surely rankled some Tyson employees, one of whom cited in an email safety measures and pay bumps, among other things, that the company had put in place.

“The point is, stop with all this ‘Oh Tyson is bad and doing things and people wrong’ cause they really aren’t and thank God we are open so me and my kids can have food and power and a place to live,” the worker wrote.

Of course, she hit send before a quarter of those tested turned up positive.

John, a contract worker, was one of those 570. He said his wife also tested positive.

“The only place she could have got it was me going to work,” he said. “She had a real high fever but I had no symptoms whatsoever.”

Of the 24,628 cases reported statewide Thursday, 702 patients were hospitalized — the highest single day number since March. As of Friday, 859 North Carolinians had died of COVID-19. The recovery rate, particularly for younger people, is high.

After a short quarantine with no signs of illness — fever or shortness of breath — John returned to the job.

What else was he going to do? Bills don’t stop coming. People have to eat.

“Now people are wearing masks,” he said. “But don’t nobody talk about it much. You gotta work.”

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