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Tyson greatly expands COVID-19 testing

Tyson greatly expands COVID-19 testing

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The front entrance of Tyson's Fresh Meat plant in Waterloo. 

SIOUX CITY — Tyson Foods will launch weekly coronavirus testing of workers after outbreaks sickened thousands of employees and idled production at several meat plants this spring.

The company also will hire nearly 200 nurses and administrative support personnel to bolster Tyson’s 400-person health services team.

The nurses will conduct the on-site tests and assist with case management, coordinating treatment for employees who contract the disease.

Tyson also will create a chief medical officer position at the corporate level.

Four company representatives shared details of the new monitoring initiative during a Zoom meeting Wednesday.

“This is a very proactive way for us to do our best to stay ahead of this virus, rather than what we’ve experienced in the recent past,” Hector Gonzalez, Tyson’s senior vice president for human resources, said.

Early in the pandemic, meatpackers nationwide struggled to contain the virus in plants where workers toil side by side on production lines and often share crowded locker rooms, cafeterias and rides to work.

Tyson has tested around 40,000 workers, or nearly one-third of its workforce. Of its 122,000 employees, less than 1 percent, or about 1,200, are active COVID-19 cases, according to the company.

The company conducted mass testing at several plants where large-scale outbreaks occurred. That included in Waterloo, where Tyson’s pork processing facility closed April 22 amid an outbreak that infected more than 1,000 workers.

Its flagship beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, just across the border from Sioux City, shut down in early May after nearly 790 of the 4,500 workers tested positive for the virus. Tyson temporarily idled several other plants, including pork facilities in Storm Lake, Columbus Junction, Perry and Madison, Nebraska, after hundreds of workers were infected.

The company now will test thousands of workers each week across all of its 140 facilities.

“That will be ongoing all the time,” said Scott Brooks, senior vice president, who leads the company’s testing efforts.

“As we expand this, we’re going to be touching even those facilities where we don’t know if we have any cases,” he said. “So it’s going to be a significant expansion.”

Workers with no symptoms may be tested through an algorithm-based process based on scientific data. The number tested each week will be adjusted based on factors such as the number of cases involving plant workers and in the community.

Other information also will factor in, said Dr. Daniel Castillo, chief medical officer for Matrix Medical, a private clinic services company Tyson retained to conduct on-site screenings.

“There are some people, because of their nature of the work, who might interact more with others. So that data would trigger that algorithm to identify those folks to be tested perhaps more often,” Castillo said.

Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union representing Tyson hourly workers, urged other industry employers to follow Tyson’s lead and “take immediate action to expand COVID monitoring as we work to flatten the curve.

“Together, we will continue to look for new and better ways to protect the health and safety of the brave front-line workers who are so important to the nation’s food production system,” Perrone said in news release from Tyson.

Tyson officials had already expanded monitoring and increased health staff since the pandemic struck.

Workers have their temperatures taken daily by infrared scanners at plant entrances and are required to wear facial coverings.

More than 500 social distance monitors have been installed in plants to track social distancing efforts and ensure personal protective equipment is worn properly.

Workers who test positive receive paid leave and may return to work only after they meet criteria established by Tyson and the Centers for Disease Control.

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