Local News

Mountaire Farms testing results in 74 COVID-19 cases

Posted April 28, 2020 7:50 p.m. EDT
Updated April 29, 2020 11:09 a.m. EDT

Photo Courtesy/Piedmont Health

— Drive-thru testing at Mountaire Farms resulted in 74 positive COVID-19 cases, which is 21% of the 356 people tested at the plant on Thursday and Friday.

The two-day event, targeting symptomatic employees and their families, is the largest mass testing to date at a food processing facility in North Carolina.

“The more you know, the better you can be in control of what is going to really happen,” said Brian Toomey, chief executive officer at Piedmont Health.

Since Friday, positive cases have jumped 53% in Chatham County, from 179 to 274 cases. The numbers do not include Mountaire Farms employees and family members who live outside the county.

State health officials say there are 479 confirmed cases at 13 food processing facilities in Bertie, Bladen, Chatham, Duplin, Lee, Lenoir, Robeson, Sampson, Union, Wilkes and Wilson counties. The names of the facility have not been released.

WRAL has reported on workers who are concerned about the spread of coronavirus at Mountaire Farms’ plants in Siler City and Lumber Bridge, Pilgrim’s Pride in Sanford, Butterball in Mt. Olive and Smithfield Foods in Wilson and Tar Heel.

'Huge spike' in cases

Piedmont Health convened a meeting via Zoom on April 16 with various partners, including UNC Health, after seeing a “huge spike in positive results” at their community health center in Siler City.

“We were concerned because it looked like they were coming from three different processing plants; Mountaire Farms, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride,” Toomey said. “There were a lot of people who all of the sudden were infected and symptomatic.”

One week after the initial call, testing began in the employee parking lot at Mountaire Farms.

“There were a lot of people in the community who were spreading an illness. We knew this was a a way to really stop it in its tracks as much as possible so it didn’t spread more,” Toomey said.

Piedmont Health and the North Carolina National Guard teamed up and tested 165 people on Thursday and another 191 people on Friday. Of the 74 who tested positive, Toomey could not say how many were employees but said there were few family members who got tested.

Prior to the testing, Mountaire Farms confirmed 11 employees contracted the virus. The company has stopped publicly confirming the number of positive cases at their plants.

A ‘Staggering’ Increase In Cases

Piedmont Health started testing for coronavirus at their 12 community health centers on March 13. In the first four weeks, just two of 149 tests were positive. In the 12 days that followed, from April 11-22, the facilities conducted a combined 250 additional tests resulting in 149 positive cases.

“It was staggering,” Toomey said. “We went from a positive of 2 out of 149 — just over one percent — to we were having days where 60 percent of our cases were positive.”

Toomey said the 21% who tested positive at Mountaire Farms should be reassuring for the plant and its workers.

“That’s not an abnormal number when you really test people,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of the workforce working is a whole lot better than zero.”

Toomey said Mountaire Farms has set a high bar for other employers with outbreaks at their facilities. By bringing the testing on-site, he says it helps target the “two terrors in the world right now” — contracting a disease that can kill them and losing their job and not being able to support their family.

“It’s the health of the community, both from the physical health to the economic health, which is going to sustain all of us over the long term," Toomey said.

Toomey believes Piedmont Health’s partnership with the National Guard, Chatham County Health Department, NCDHHS and LabCorp will be replicated in counties throughout the state.

“All of these people came together for the common good. It just makes you feel really, really good to know you're making a difference in this world," he said. "We'll get through this together."

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