Health officials understood early in the pandemic that highly populated indoor spaces would be ground zero for transmission, knowledge that helped guide safety protocols for schools, long-term care facilities and prisons.
But when poultry plants on Virginia’s Eastern Shore began reporting outbreaks, state health officials were cautious to react. Worse, they kept from the public data that would have provided a clearer picture of the dire situation unfolding there.
Sen. Lynwood Lewis, who represents the Eastern Shore, introduced legislation to improve disclosure requirements, but the Senate Education and Health Committee declined to act on it during the special session. However, the need for greater transparency remains very much alive.
Meatpacking and poultry plants are not workplaces for the faint of heart. Workers toil in close proximity to one another in difficult conditions, generally for low wages. Plants tend to be located in remote, low-income communities and employ recent immigrants and minority workers at disproportionate rates.
It was in these facilities that the coronavirus spread like wildfire. ProPublica, an investigative journalism non-profit, recorded “more than 43,000 cases and at least 195 deaths among meatpacking employees” since the pandemic began.
A July report by the Centers for Disease Control tells a more nuanced story. The organization counted “16,233 cases in 239 facilities” in April and May, including 86 deaths. That includes facilities in Virginia.
“Among cases with race/ethnicity reported, 87% occurred among racial or ethnic minorities,” the report says.
In Virginia, about 1,200 coronvirus cases and at least 10 deaths are tied to plants on the Eastern Shore, where many poultry facilities are located. But compiling those figures proved to be more difficult than it should have been.
Reporting by Sarah Vogelsong at the Virginia Mercury details what happened — on the Eastern Shore and in Richmond — when the first cases appeared in April. Requests she filed under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act secured emails that show the growing alarm over plant outbreaks and possible remedies for controlling them.
Concern naturally centered on a spike in cases overwhelming limited hospital resources on the Eastern Shore. According to Vogelsong’s reporting, state health officials floated the idea of shutting the plants down for two weeks, but the arrival of a CDC team focused on the facilities prompted them to change course.
However, she also obtained emails from poultry company officials urging state officials to keep the plants up and running despite the outbreaks, saying they didn’t want to be blamed for the coronavirus spread in those communities.
They also rebuffed requests from Richmond to voluntarily pause operations and to provide additional testing information. The deployment of the CDC team, which came via a request by Gov. Ralph Northam, seemed to alleviate some concern in the capital.
The coronavirus has been a cunning and tricky adversary for health officials, who have increased their understanding of the virus with each passing day. There should be some leniency in judgment rendered for those who were doing the best with the information available.
However, throughout the pandemic, reliable data has been lacking.
The administration has often erred on the side of privacy when it comes to reporting health data — even when making those numbers public would adhere to legal privacy protections, and even when publicizing those numbers would put useful information in the public’s hands.
That was true about long-term care facilities and nursing homes. It was true for prisons. And it remains true for workplaces when an aggressive pathogen threatens the health of an entire community, as was the case here.
Sen. Lewis wants to change that through legislation, though he told the Virginia Mercury there were problems in his bill that he wants to fix to comport with workplace safety laws enacted by Virginia’s Safety and Health Codes Board.
It’s work worth doing and worth doing right. The pandemic has aptly demonstrated that Virginians need more transparency and accountability, and good for Lewis trying to provide it for his constituents and the commonwealth.
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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