Worker at Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant tests positive for COVID-19

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Crates of chickens are unloaded from a truck at the Pilgrim's Pride plant on Broad Street on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The South Broad Street corridor has been targeted by developers for new apartments and businesses.

A worker has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus at one of Chattanooga's poultry processing plants.

The Hamilton County Health Department confirmed Monday there is a positive COVID-19 case at the Pilgrim's Pride facility in the Southside area of Chattanooga.

"As with all positive cases, health department employees immediately begin contract tracing and take appropriate isolation and quarantine measures with contacts of the case," said Tom Bodkin, a spokesman for the Hamilton County Department of Health. "Pilgrim's Pride is fully cooperating with the Health Department."

The coronavirus infection is the first known such case at a Chattanooga meat processing or packaging facility, although nationwide the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that 4,913 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states. Among about 130,000 workers at those facilities, 20 deaths have occurred due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nationwide, the CDC said the meat and poultry processing industry employs approximately 500,000 people, many of whom work in close proximity to other workers and are less than 6 feet from one another, closer than recommended by federal health authorities.

Nikki Richardson, a spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride and its parent company, JBS USA, said the company gives temperature checks to all incoming workers before they enter the plant and requires face masks to be worn at all times on company property. Pilgrim's Pride is also increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day, and is promoting physical distancing by staggering starts and breaks.

"We will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe," she said. "At Pilgrim's Chattanooga, we are following all CDC and OSHA issued guidance around safety and social distancing, and we're doing everything possible to provide a safe working environment for our team members who are providing food for us all during these unprecedented times."

Other Pilgrim's Pride plants in Minnesota, Virginia and West Virginia have had multiple cases of COVID-19 cases in their poultry processing operations.

In Cold Spring, Minnesota, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations last week called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate the Pilgrim's Pride poultry processing plant after numerous workers tested positive for COVID-19. The poultry plants haven't disclosed the exact numbers of workers who have tested positive. But the Minnesota Department of Health said last week at least 83 employees of Pilgrim's Pride had confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Last week, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice ordered the National Guard to test all workers at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry processing plant in Moorefield after identifying the coronavirus in some employees.

In early April, more than two dozen workers at Pilgrim's Pride protested outside a plant in Timberville, Virginia, over health and safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic after some employees tested positive for the virus.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree or 423-757-6340.