With the weight of the federal Defense Production Act behind them, meat processing plants are mostly remaining open during the coronavirus pandemic despite a number of documented virus outbreaks.
While helping farmers stay solvent and allowing grocery stores to keep their shelves stocked, the meat processors are also having an unintended effect on the battle to halt the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory disease.
That impact has been on display in Bowling Green, where a large group of immigrants from the Asian country of Myanmar, or Burma, is believed to factor into Warren County’s recent spike in confirmed cases of the virus.
According to Kentucky Office for Refugees figures, a total of 849 Burmese immigrants and refugees arrived in Bowling Green from 2015 to 2019. Many of them gravitate to working at facilities such as the Perdue Farms chicken processing plant in Ohio County, where dozens of positive cases have been discovered.
“We tested all of the nearly 1,200 associates at our Cromwell (Ohio County) facility on May 6 and around 7 percent were positive,” Perdue Farms Director of Corporate Communications Diana Souder said in an email.
Because dozens of Bowling Green’s Burmese community work at the Ohio County plant, the positive cases have had negative results for Warren County, which has now reported more confirmed cases – 950 as of Tuesday – than any Kentucky county except Jefferson.
“It’s my understanding that the huge outbreak at Perdue was a major factor in our recent testing results,” Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon said in a text message.
Buchanon said those positive tests led to expanded testing in targeted neighborhoods, which uncovered more cases of the virus.
“Those testing sites were the reason we were able to locate so many families – children included – who had COVID-19 and get them lined up with medical professionals and the health department,” Buchanon said. “They were able to quarantine these individuals and families and stop further spread.”
Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the International Center of Kentucky located in Bowling Green, said “around 80 percent” of the city’s refugees have now been tested.
“Quite a good number” of those who work at Perdue have tested positive, Mbanfu said, but he isn’t sure where the infections originated.
“It’s difficult to know if they took it to the plant or if they caught it there and brought it back,” Mbanfu said.
Part of the problem, Mbanfu reasoned, stems from the work ethic of those Burmese immigrants and refugees who often carpool to the Perdue plant.
“They like to work,” Mbanfu said. “If they’re sick, they’ll try to hide their illness and just go to work.”
Ohio County Judge-Executive David Johnston admits meat processing plants like Perdue lend themselves to the spread of disease.
“They work in close proximity at the plant,” Johnston said. “It’s hard to do social distancing.”
But Johnston says Perdue, the largest private employer in Ohio County, faces such strict scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he believes it is unlikely that the virus originated there.
“It seems to be traced back to the Burmese community in Bowling Green,” Johnston said. “They ride together in carpools, and they live in close communities. It most likely started there. That’s my opinion, not a scientific fact.”