MACHIPONGO — Health officials on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are increasingly worried that clusters of COVID-19 tied to two poultry plants may overwhelm the one local hospital, even as the Trump administration insists such facilities remain open to keep the country fed during the crisis.
The chicken plants, one operated by Perdue Farms, the other by Tyson Foods, continued operating as the number of cases linked to them climbed in the past week, according to health officials.
Hospital officials said Tuesday that there are nearly 100 cases of Tyson employees or people who came in contact with them contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while the Perdue plant has about 80 such cases.
The coronavirus numbers on the Eastern Shore are small compared with those of big cities, but in rural areas it does not take as many cases to overwhelm local health care facilities.
“Something needs to be done to reduce the spread of the infection,” said Michael Dacey, president and chief operating officer of Riverside Health System, which operates the only hospital in Accomack County, where the two chicken plants are located.
That hospital, Riverside Shore Memorial, has 52 beds, six of them for patients in the intensive care unit.
On Tuesday, five of those six beds were in use, and the hospital had already sent about 10 patients to a larger hospital hours away.
Dacey wrote to state health officials last week, urging “decisive action” to contain the spread.
Perdue and Tyson have declined to say how many of their employees at the facilities have COVID-19, but they said they are taking extra precautions to try to prevent its spread.
On Friday, Tyson closed the facility for a three-day cleaning, and employees were back at work on the line Monday, officials said.
The two facilities combined employ more than 3,000 people, and the COVID-19 cases linked to those plants make up a majority of the cases in the county, according to health officials.
On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia is seeking federal help to combat the spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking facilities.
The governor said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending a team to the Eastern Shore that will include epidemiologists and contact tracers. The CDC team will do an assessment, including wider testing, to help determine the scope of the outbreak on the Eastern Shore.
Meat processing plants in other parts of the nation have been coronavirus hot spots, and health experts suspect that is in part because workers operate in proximity to one another in enclosed spaces.
At least 20 meatpacking plants have closed in recent weeks because of the outbreaks, and at least 17 workers have died of COVID-19.