Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamid Adam stands for a portrait on Central Avenue after getting off work at the Pilgrims Pride chicken plant on Monday, May 4, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chattanooga, essential workers feared for their safety as they continued working while other businesses shut down or sent people home to work.

Those fears are now being realized as cases in Hamilton County surged in recent weeks, particularly in vulnerable neighborhoods and at workplaces that never shut down.

Hamilton County Health Department administrator Becky Barnes last week announced 33 cases connected to Chattanooga's poultry processing plants, including 29 at Koch Foods and four at Pilgrim's Pride. The department also released a map of COVID-19 case clusters in 15 workplaces throughout the county.

The rising case count among essential workers drove the county's case total from 163 on May 1 to 566 on May 23. By the end of last week, the county was averaging 30 new cases a day, higher than at any other point in the pandemic. County officials have emphasized that none of the new cases are linked to government decisions to begin reopening the economy by lifting stay-at-home orders that were designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

"These were people that were working in areas that were considered essential jobs, as we've said for quite some time now," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said during a Thursday news conference. "And as a result of that, some, unfortunately, have taken it home to their families."

Carla Leslie, a Pilgrim's Pride employee for 30 years, said the fear among workers at the plant has been constant since the outbreak began months ago. People are wearing face coverings and doing what they can to stay apart, she said. The plant checks temperatures at the door and provides masks, she said.

She feels safe, even if she is nervous about being exposed, she said.

"We're just doing our best to survive because this is something we've never seen before," she said. " We're just trying to make it home to our families."

Leslie said she thanks God there are not more cases at the plant, as other worksites have been hit with the virus. In South Dakota, hundreds of cases were linked to a Smithfield Foods meat processing plant.

"My faith gets me through everything," she said. "He said he would never forsake us and I trust Him on his word."

(READ MORE: For first time, Hamilton County releases COVID-19 cases by ZIP code showing areas hit hardest by virus)

Lakecha Strickland, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1212, said drivers are scared. They are taking care of loved ones who are vulnerable after risking exposure to the virus for hours every day.

In early April, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority moved to have rear-door boarding only on buses, decreasing the face-to-face contact riders had with drivers. Buses were also limited to no more than 10 passengers at a time until the city lifted the state of emergency.

Strickland said her union is pushing to extend the safety measures because the virus is not going away anytime soon. The union wants on-site testing for drivers and to require all passengers to wear a mask.

"We don't want it to be just if they want to," Strickland said. "We want it to be mandated from the governor."


Safety recommendations, not rules

Gov. Bill Lee has not mandated safety measures for employers as the state begins to reopen, instead calling on them to take the "Tennessee Pledge" to voluntarily follow unenforced state safety recommendations.

On April 24, Lee announced the guidelines for essential businesses and those that were reopening, based on federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations.

"By taking the Tennessee Pledge, our businesses can reopen in a way that protects the health of their customers and employees, and protects the livelihoods of hard-working Tennesseans," Lee said at the time.

The governor asked local leaders to get on board, which Mayor Coppinger did when reopening Hamilton County. In April, Coppinger said the county would not enforce the reopening measures but will monitor the testing data.

The decision to make the pledge voluntary angered some residents, including pastors who say the governor is putting people at risk.

On Thursday, Coppinger said every local business with positive cases has worked with county officials to do contact tracing. The county is focusing on building relationships and trust with businesses rather than punishing violations of the Tennessee Pledge recommendations or increasing oversight at essential workplaces.

"I don't think there's any need to be doing that," Coppinger said at the Thursday news conference.


Protecting vulnerable workers

Since the increase in new cases began in early May, county officials have maintained the virus is spreading in workplaces and in homes among family members. On Wednesday, the public got a clear picture of which communities are affected when the health department released a map with the number of COVID-19 cases in each ZIP code.

The map revealed that a quarter of local cases were clustered in the 37407 ZIP code, among the most vulnerable in the state to the virus.

The 37407 area, which contains Clifton Hills and East Lake, is ranked 598 of 600 ZIP codes in the state in terms of health outcomes by the Tennessee Hospital Association and its data partner, the Hospital Industry Data Institute.

The 37407 area is more racially diverse than the rest of the county, with nearly 40% of residents being black or African American and more than 25% Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The area also has a poverty rate nearly four times higher than the county, with 45% of the population living below the federal poverty line, according to the census.

Communities of color and low-income individuals are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, said Dr. Lisa Cooper, professor of equity in health and health care at Johns Hopkins Medicine. These groups are likely to work essential jobs and lack health care access, she said.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 1 in 5 black workers and approximately 1 in 6 Hispanic workers could work from home, compared to 1 in 4 whites. The difference results in tens of thousands of workers of color having increased risk of contracting the virus.

(READ MORE: More testing brings COVID-19 case surge in Chattanooga; is it also a sign of danger?)

Leaders and advocates for the local Hispanic community, one of the groups hardest hit by the virus in the county, said protecting workers is essential to ensuring community safety. One of the best ways to do this is to allow them to isolate when they are sick, said Dr. Kelly Arnold, medical director at Clinica Medicos. Employers should pay workers who are isolated to lessen the burden of following public health guidelines, she said.

On Thursday, Chattanooga's Unity Group released a statement again emphasizing its call for a local plan to address racial disparities in the outbreak and for meat processing plants to better protect workers by providing personal protective equipment allowing for social distancing in the workplace.

Pilgrim's Pride is taking the temperatures of all employees, hiring extra staff to do cleaning and requiring sick employees to stay home, among other measures, said Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at JBS USA. Employees who have medical documentation are eligible for paid sick leave, Bruett said.

Koch Foods did not respond to request for comment.

Employers are required to provide their employees with protective equipment that meets the needs of the job, said Chris Cannon, assistant administrator with Tennessee OSHA.

The only standard sanitation requirement Tennessee OSHA can govern is that employers provide soap and water for employees, Cannon said. Also, Tennessee OSHA cannot require an employer to provide face masks, he said.

"By TOSHA standards, face masks are not considered personal protective equipment, and the standard does not require an employer provide them," Cannon said in a statement.

If someone files a complaint with Tennessee OSHA, the organization will send a letter notifying the employer, Cannon said.

"The letter reiterates CDC recommendations to wash hands, practice cough/sneeze discipline, and maintain distance between employees as the workplace allows," he said in a statement. "In some circumstances, TOSHA may ask an employer to fill out a self-assessment to document the measures they have taken."

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.