In the two months since Delaware had reported its first case of the novel coronavirus, the Sussex Medical Center had treated roughly 1,250 cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. At the peak of the crisis, the small family practice had been flooded with almost 100 covid-19 patients per day — half of them employed in the region’s $3.5 billion chicken industry.
It had been seven weeks since the poultry plant worker had gotten sick in early April. Six since he had called 911, struggling to breathe. Five since his paychecks had stopped coming, just as the hospital bills had started to arrive.
Many of his co-workers at Perdue Farms in Georgetown had also fallen ill with covid-19. At least one of them — a friend he chatted with on breaks — had died.
He’d worked at the plant for almost 30 years, hauling, chopping or cleaning chicken since shortly after he’d immigrated to the United States from Central America. He made $13 an hour — money he desperately needed to support his wife and three kids but was no longer sure was worth the risk. Still, he feared being fired and asked not to be identified by name.
The clinic’s door cracked open and a nurse called his name.
Inside, physician Paul Aguillon greeted him with an elbow bump and pointed him toward a wood-paneled examination room.
The Perdue employee had been a patient of Aguillon’s father, an affable immigrant from Colombia who’d left his son the practice. Aguillon, 38, asked in his own choppy Spanish how the worker felt since visiting a week earlier.
“Better,” he replied softly.
“Every day?” Aguillon asked, scribbling in his chart.
His father had taught him to be cautious with patients, especially someone who’d spent a month on oxygen. But now President Trump had declared meatpacking plants and their workers essential.
“They want you to return to work as soon as you can,” he said during the late May appointment, running through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention checklist of symptoms and recovery time.
“According to those recommendations, the government thinks you’re ready to return to work tomorrow,” Aguillon said, looking up at the man, 20 years his senior, whose hands were clenched nervously in his lap. “Are you ready to go back?”
Massive metal broiler houses glint for miles across the pancake-flat Delmarva Peninsula, a region that stretches from southern Delaware through the Eastern Shore of Maryland and into Virginia. Thousands of acres of farmland are devoted to feeding the birds, 600 million of which meet their maker every year inside the region’s 11 poultry plants. The industry employs more than 20,000 people in the three states.
“It’s the equivalent of Detroit and the auto industry” in the 1950s, said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson, who grew up across the street from one poultry plant and whose Georgetown office is a few blocks from another.
Over the course of two terrifying months, at least 2,215 Delmarva poultry plant workers became sick with the coronavirus, according to data from the three states compiled by The Washington Post. At least 17 died.
Delaware health investigators first traced an infection to a poultry plant on March 28, when two employees from a Perdue factory in Milford tested positive.
Soon Spanish-speaking poultry plant workers were calling the state’s coronavirus hotline, saying they were afraid they had the virus and had exposed their families, recalled Kara Odom Walker, secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.
When health officials began visiting the poultry plants in early April, they found that some facilities were quickly moving to prevent the spread of the virus.
But others “didn’t have the same urgency about it,” Odom Walker said. “They thought: We’re essential. We need to provide food for the country.”
By late April, cases in Sussex County — home to five of Delaware’s six poultry plants — had eclipsed those in the much more heavily populated north of the state. On the Health Department’s color-coded maps, the Zip code for Georgetown had become a deep and deadly blue.
“People who worked in the plants were showing up at emergency rooms,” recalled Lawson. “They were not sore or a-bit-of-a-fever sick. They were deathly sick.”
Officials began testing for the coronavirus in the poultry plants’ parking lots. At one factory, 30 percent of those tested were positive, Lawson said.
With the plants ordered to remain open, sick employees kept pouring into Aguillon’s clinic.
One patient, who worked at the Mountaire Farms chicken plant in Selbyville, had tried to hole up inside his mobile home, only to see his wife and five kids get sick.
One of his co-workers was so worried about infecting her seven relatives that she quarantined in the only place she could think of: her bathroom. She spent two weeks inside the tiny, windowless space, sleeping feverishly on a foam mat. Mountaire paid her $660 — 60 percent of her normal wages — during that time, she said, and nothing over the next month as she recuperated.
“All they care about is their products, their earnings, their money,” she said. “We aren’t anything to them.”
Mountaire declined to comment and instead referred to a news release thanking workers and saying it had been “proactive” in protecting them.
A brother and sister working at a different plant both got sick in early April. The brother wound up on a ventilator, spending six weeks in the hospital, nearly all of it unpaid, his sibling said. He was still in a medically induced coma when the chicken plant began urging her to come back.
Though he survived, they recently received documents from the hospital in English, which they don’t speak. The only thing they understood was the number at the bottom for the cost of his hospital stay: $61,000.
No hope of another job
The Perdue poultry worker had been one of the first at the Georgetown plant to get sick in the spring.
The company had closed its Milford plant for cleaning, yet in his Georgetown factory just 16 miles away, no one was checking temperatures or wearing masks, he said.
He knew something was wrong when his body began to ache mid-shift.
Five days later, he was in the back of an ambulance.
Perdue declined to say when it implemented safety measures in its four Delmarva plants. The company also declined to provide the number of employees who have gotten sick with the virus or died of covid-19, but interviews and state health data show that at least three local Perdue employees have died of the disease.
“The safety and well-being of our associates is our top concern,” the nation’s fourth-largest chicken company said in a statement. “That’s why Perdue Farms has partnered with federal and state health officials to support their rigorous testing and education efforts that are intended to help keep our employees, and the broader communities in which we operate, safe from COVID-19.”
For the worker, the hulking factory had long been the center of his life. He’d met his wife in Georgetown, working overtime so he could buy a small house, where their three kids grew up with braces and American accents.
But in almost 30 years, his wage had barely kept up with inflation.
And so, when Perdue asked him to return as he was lying in the hospital hooked up to an oxygen machine, the poultry plant worker began wondering if he should go back.
He arrived home after a week in the hospital to find that Perdue had stopped paying him, he said, even as the company kept calling him to come back. (Perdue says it follows CDC guidelines on employees returning to work and pays sick workers “through the duration of their recovery.”)
As he recovered, he began to hear about co-workers who’d gotten sick after him.
One of them was Aaron Sanchez Huerta.
The Mexican electrician had also been at the plant for years, and the two men had often spent their breaks chatting in the cafeteria.
When rumors swirled that Sanchez had died of the disease, his friend didn’t know if he should believe them. So on the day of his doctor’s appointment, he stopped by Sanchez’s house on a narrow lane called Strawberry Alley.
He knocked, but no one answered. As he was about to leave, a woman in a ponytail and pajamas with the word “LOVE” on them emerged from a back door.
“Is Aaron in?” he asked in Spanish.
“He’s not here,” answered Reyna Bahena. “Do you know him?”
“He’s a friend of mine,” he said. “We work together in Perdue.”
“You work in Perdue?”
The Central American nodded.
“My husband died,” she said softly.
For years, the gentle man with the bushy mustache had promised to move back to Mexico with Bahena as soon as he retired from Perdue. Instead, she got a job there, too, working during the day on the chicken lines that he repaired by night.
At first, the only sign of the pandemic was the announcement that Perdue would pay an extra dollar per hour, which elicited shouts of “Bravo!” from the workers on Bahena’s shift.
Soon, however, Sanchez came down with what he initially dismissed as a cold. Three days later, on April 16, she was working alongside her sister on the wings line when she began to feel dizzy and nauseated.
The earliest available coronavirus test was a week away. As they waited, their fevers grew worse. By the day of the test, Sanchez’s breathing was so bad that he called 911 and was taken to Beebe hospital in Lewes.
Sanchez spoke to Bahena by phone from Beebe for more than a week, swearing that if they survived, he’d move to Mexico with her right away.
Instead, his voice became weaker and weaker, until one day, the nurse answered and said Sanchez had been put on a ventilator.
On the night of May 6, a doctor called and said Sanchez’s lungs were failing.
“Do you want to come and be with him?” the doctor asked.
At the hospital the next morning, covered in protective gear, she took his hand and spoke to him one last time.
“Wake up, my love,” she said. “Soon you’re going to come home.”
She saw a tear on his face and decided he understood. But he didn’t wake up. Instead, doctors closed a curtain around him. When it reopened, Sanchez was disconnected from the ventilator.
“I prayed and prayed until his body became cold,” she told the Central American, who now sat on a couch inside the small house she had shared with Sanchez.
She planned to take his ashes to Mexico, she said, but was no longer sure she’d stay there without him. The hospital had sent a $2,000 bill, and she was expecting more. The poultry plant was asking when she’d return. Her sister, who had also caught the coronavirus, had already gone back.
Bahena said she was angry with Perdue for not telling workers that colleagues had covid-19; for not providing masks until it was too late.
“But where would I find another job?” she said.
The Central American nodded, wondering the same.
'Don't forget your mask'
A week later, it was time for him to decide.
The mortgage was due, yet he hadn’t been paid in more than a month. The hospital was asking for $5,000. His father in Central America needed surgery, but he didn’t have any money to send.
And so, on a sparkling spring afternoon in late May, as children played in a plastic swimming pool down the street and a neighbor strummed an acoustic guitar on the porch, the Perdue employee decided to go back.
Back to the plant where he believed he’d gotten sick.
Back to the cafeteria where he and Sanchez had sat.
Back to the job that temporarily pays $14 per hour.
Everywhere, things appeared to be going back to usual. The boardwalks along the Delmarva beaches were busy again. Businesses were starting to reopen. And in the poultry plants, the lines that had never stopped were now fully staffed.
“I don’t know the numbers, and I don’t want to know,” Georgetown Mayor Bill West said when asked about the toll the pandemic had taken on poultry workers. “All I want is for things to go back to normal.”
But nothing was normal for the Perdue employee, whose left lung still ached.
“He’s very worried he will get sick again,” Aguillon had written during his exam, even as he cleared the worker to return to the plant.
Now the Perdue employee put on extra layers to guard against the chill inside the factory. As he walked to the car, his wife opened the front door, where an American flag sticker was starting to fade.
“Don’t forget your mask,” she said, holding up the thin piece of cloth he wished he’d had two months earlier.
He drove across the small town, past Sanchez’s house on Strawberry Alley, toward the buzzards circling in the sky.
It was shift change, and dozens of Perdue employees trudged away from the plant in rubber boots, the air thick with the smell of eviscerated chicken.
He parked his car, grabbed his helmet from the back seat and headed inside.