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May 5, 2020

Tyson Portland employees tested for COVID-19 as plant remains closed

A man walks past a monitor showing an infrared scan of his body Courtesy / Tyson Foods A Tyson Foods employee at one of its plants walks past an infrared scanner, which determines whether the person has a fever, one of the measures the company has put in place at plants across the country. The Tyson facility on St. John Street in Portland is closed as the company cleans and puts health and safety measures in place.

Testing is underway for 400-plus employees at Portland's Tyson Foods plant, the first business in the state that's not a congregant living setting to report a COVID-19 outbreak among employees.

The company is implementing safety and health measures at the former Barber Foods plant on St. John Street, similar to those Tyson is working on at plants across the country, as it remains closed until all employees are tested, said spokesman Worth Sparkman.

Of 96 employees tested by Monday afternoon, 17 had tested positive for COVID-19, including the 12 initial cases reported last week, according to Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah. The CDC confirmed to Mainebiz this morning that it's the first outbreak at a business that isn't a congregant living setting in the state. Most of the state's outbreaks have been at rehabilitation or senior care centers.

The company closed the plant for cleaning and employee testing after the outbreak was discovered and it will remain closed until all employees are tested and results are available, Sparkman said.

“While the plant is idle, we are performing a deep clean and sanitization of the facility and are continuing to work closely with the Maine CDC to ensure our efforts meet or exceed state and national guidelines," he said.

Sparkman said the company won't comment on specifics, including the number of cases. "Since this is an ever-changing situation, we’re not sharing specific numbers in Portland," he said. "We will work with Maine CDC and an outside medical contractor to conduct COVID-19 testing for all of our team members in the coming days.

"The health and safety of our team members is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously," he said.

Nationally, Tyson has contracted with Arizona-based Matrix Medical Network to provide testing and other health support at  "select" plants across the country, Tyson announced Friday. Sparkman wouldn't comment on whether Matrix is doing the Maine testing.

Many of the employees at the Portland plant, which produces chicken products, are members of the city's immigrant community, and Shah said that Maine CDC is working with community representatives to help with contact tracing — the practice of determining who those who test positive had contact with over the two weeks prior to testing positive.

Shah said the work with immigrant community representatives is key, because there's a concern some may avoid CDC overtures, "and continue to be unwell."

Photo / Peter Van Allen
The Tyson chicken processing plant, on St. John Street, in Portland, is closed while its 400-plus employees are tested for COVID-19. The plant is the first business in the state that's not a care center to report an outbreak of the virus.

Education, restrictions, scanning

Tyson, over the past several weeks, has dealt with larger outbreaks at meatpacking plants across in Iowa, Indiana, Washington and other states. Many of those plants have also been closed while the company tests employees and enhances health and safety measures.

"Education is an important part of our efforts and we’re doing our best to ensure our team members understand risk factors so that they can stay safe at work and at home," Sparkman said.

Specific measures being taken at all Tyson plants include:

  • Restricting visitor access and relaxing attendance policy to reinforce the importance of staying home when sick or to meet child care needs.
  • Implementing the use of infrared thermometers to check the temperature of team members before they enter company facilities.
  • Supplying protective facial coverings to every team member and requiring they are used.
  • Implementing tools to help with social distancing, including partitions on production lines and in break rooms, and stepping up efforts to clean and sanitize "everything we can."
  • Evaluating and implementing ways to promote more social distancing in plants, which includes, at some locations, allowing more time between shifts to reduce worker interaction, large tents for outdoor break rooms, removing chairs in some break rooms so there is more space between workers, eliminating conference room meetings and the size of new orientation classes.

Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN), of Springdale, Ark., acquired AdvancePierre Foods Holdings Inc., the parent company of Barber Foods, in 2017. At the time, Barber said on its website that it employed 280 people of 36 nationalities.

Barber Foods, originally Barber Beef and Poultry, was founded in 1955 as a meat truck owned by Gus Barber, the son of Armenian immigrants. Barber, who died in 2008, expanded that into the chicken production plant on St. John Street.

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