Health officials said the company’s advice to doctors highlights the tension between public health considerations designed to stop the spread of the deadly disease and the urgency felt by meatpacking companies to keep the production lines moving to maintain the nation’s food supply.
The tension is particularly acute in the meatpacking industry because workers often spend long hours in close quarters. Meatpacking plants around the country have been plagued by coronavirus outbreaks. On the Eastern Shore, the spread of the virus at a Perdue plant and a Tyson Foods facility has threatened to overwhelm the nearby hospital.
The message from Perdue Farms also underscores a key consequence of President Trump’s executive order insisting meatpacking plants remain open — giving the companies a rationale to get their workers back on the job more quickly.
An April 29 email from Roger Merrill, the chief medical adviser for Perdue Farms, to Eastern Shore Rural Health, a community health-care group, invokes Trump’s executive order by noting, “We cannot continue operations if employees are sent home by local clinics without firm diagnoses,” according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Washington Post.
At the time the email was sent, most doctors in the rural area were telling patients who had come into close contact with someone with covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to isolate themselves at home for two weeks.
In the email, Merrill cites guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say isolation “can be discontinued after 7 days from onset of symptoms if at least 3 days have elapsed since fever of 100.4 [degrees] as long as respiratory symptoms are improving.”
Richard Williams, acting director of the Virginia regional health office, said “there is a tension between the two dynamics of protecting the worker but also keeping the food supply intact.” Williams said he did not take issue with Perdue telling doctors at a community health center what medical advice to give their patients.
Paul Aguillon, whose medical practice in Delaware sees a number of poultry plant workers, said the guidelines offered by Perdue “are kind of pro-business and not so pro-patient.”
Aguillon said he has been telling patients who have been in close contact with coronavirus patients to stay out of work for two weeks, and in a couple instances, he was told that the patients’ poultry plant boss told them to come back to work after one week.
That tension has eased a bit in the past week as testing has been more available to the poultry plant workers and a clearer picture is starting to emerge of who does and doesn’t have the virus, Aguillon said.
Diana Souder, a Perdue spokeswoman, said the company has been relying “on the latest science, including CDC guidelines.” She said Merrill’s outreach to doctors “was intended only to coordinate with these important partners as well as underscore Perdue’s prioritization of our associates’ safety. We have proactively opened a dialogue with community leaders, including health care providers, in the areas where we have production facilities, who share our goal of keeping people healthy. The safety and well-being of our associates is our top concern, and we recognize that successfully fighting this pandemic requires a community-wide approach.”
Asked about Perdue’s email, Nancy Stern, chief executive of Eastern Shore Rural Health, said: “I believe it is in the best interest of the Eastern Shore community not to respond to your question. We continue to collaborate and take pride in our relationships with businesses and health-care providers.”
Merrill, in the April 29 email, noted the CDC had issued guidance “in conjunction with the President’s declaration yesterday that meat and poultry plants are ordered to continue operations under the Defense Production Act.”
Merrill closed the email by thanking Eastern Shore Rural Health for “your efforts to protect our associates; by implementing these guidelines we will all be operating under the best science currently available. In the mean time, we will [be] reaching out to the folks who have been put out of work for reason: close contacts and get them back to protecting the Nation from food shortages.”
A senior executive at the hospital dealing with the most serious covid-19 cases on Virginia’s Eastern Shore said his hospital had not received a similar communication from Perdue.
“We make our own decisions about things, clinically and medically,” said Michael Dacey, president at Riverside Health System.