With face masks, temperature checks and hand-sanitizer dispensers now common in American workplaces, systematic testing shows the lengths to which companies may go to ensure the safety of their workers — and ultimately their customers — as U.S. coronavirus infections surge past 4.4 million. Tyson’s announcement Thursday also illustrates that the nation’s piecemeal response to the pandemic has forced businesses to take a more proactive approach to a public health crisis that has resulted in a recession.
In May, Walmart executives said the retail giant was exploring administering coronavirus and antibody tests for its 1.5 million U.S. workers. Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, offers free home testing kits to employees with symptoms of covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Amazon, which is building its own testing lab, has piloted a program to test warehouse workers and says it will spend $1 billion on employee testing this year. The company also has assembled a team of scientists, engineers and other specialists to oversee the testing of front-line employees. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
“There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and the best investment we can make is in the safety and well-being of our hundreds of thousands of employees,” Bezos said in a news release in April.
On Thursday, McDonald’s announced that the Mayo Clinic would advise the fast-food giant on coronavirus prevention strategies at its more than 38,000 restaurants. And companies as disparate as Grubhub and Dermalogica have hired epidemiologists — scientists who study how disease spreads and is controlled — to help them draw up safety rules.
Most major retailers now require that workers and customers wear masks in their stores. Some, like Apple and Walmart, also are checking employees’ temperatures at the beginning of their shifts.
Testing can vary in accuracy and the length of time it takes for people to receive their results. Viral swab tests, like those used at drive-through clinics, tell people whether they’re infected with the coronavirus that day. But experts say the window between when someone contracts the virus and when the infection becomes detectable varies from person to person and can range from two to 14 days. Even more uncertainty surrounds asymptomatic people. Some testing sites also have a backlog of results to be distributed, resulting in delays.
Mickelson said that Tyson employees will receive lab results in two to three days. “We follow CDC guidance, which includes isolation of team members if they have symptoms or test positive,” he said, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tyson’s new strategy “will help further our efforts to go on the offensive against the virus,” Donnie King, Tyson Foods group president and chief administrative officer, said in a news release. “Adding more resources and technologies reinforces our commitment to protecting our team members, their families and plant communities.”
The monitoring system will use an algorithm to select employees without symptoms for testing. The number tested each week will be adapted on the basis of how many positive cases turn up at each plant site, as well as on the basis of case numbers in the surrounding community, the company said. Tyson facilities also conduct daily health screenings as employees enter work sites, and any employees who have covid-19 symptoms will be tested. Any employees who come into close contact with those who have covid-19 symptoms or have tested positive in the workplace will be tested, as well.
The company also created a chief medical officer position and said it will expand its health services team by 50 percent, or nearly 200 nurses and administrative employees, to oversee on-site testing and treatment of workers who contract the virus.
Matrix Medical Network helped design Tyson’s testing protocol, following CDC guidelines, the company said.
“The new monitoring program we helped Tyson create is a science-first approach that’s really on the cutting edge of how workplaces can best mitigate the risk of the virus,” Daniel Castillo, Matrix Medical’s chief medical officer, said in the Tyson news release. “You’ll likely see many others adopt a similar approach in the coming months because it’s a process that looks both at people showing symptoms as well as those who do not.”
Meatpacking has been among the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. At least 93 workers have died, and more than 16,200 have been exposed to or infected by the virus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
In April, an investigation by The Washington Post found that Tyson and two other large meat processors failed to provide employees with protective equipment, instead telling them to keep working even as the spread of the coronavirus across the country turned crowded plants into infection hot spots.
A few days after the investigation was published, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlined new procedures for meatpacking plants to protect workers: sanitizing shared equipment, placing physical barriers between employees at workstations, providing personal protective equipment and sick leave without penalty.
Coronavirus outbreaks at more than 20 such facilities, including some owned by Tyson Foods, led to a number of plant closures and meat shortages. But at the end of April, President Trump signed an executive order encouraging meat plants to reopen to guard against shortages. At least 7,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection have been tied to Tyson employees, The Post reported in June.
Mickelson, the Tyson Foods spokesman, declined to disclose the cumulative number of employees who have tested positive or have died of the virus. As of Thursday, the company said, it has tested nearly a third of its 120,000 U.S. workers and has fewer than 1,200 active cases. Tyson formed a coronavirus task force in January and has implemented protective measures including symptom screenings, the wearing of face masks, physically separating workstations and assigning employees to monitor social distancing.
The food workers union, which represents 24,000 Tyson employees, on Thursday lauded the company’s efforts and called on others in the industry to take similar steps to monitor and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“We welcome this important step by Tyson Foods, which demonstrates the leadership needed to strengthen COVID monitoring across the industry,” union President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “UFCW is urging all companies in the industry to follow Tyson’s lead and take immediate action to expand COVID monitoring as we work to flatten the curve.”