COVID-19 cases up almost 10% over the weekend; Tyson Foods expands worker testing

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,296 views 

The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Arkansas, with the number of new known cases up almost 10% between Friday and Monday (June 1). Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said more testing is needed and he has a “private goal” of 120,000 tests in June.

Smith and Gov. Asa Hutchinson were in Rogers on Monday for the daily COVID-19 briefing to focus on the rising number of cases in the Northwest Arkansas area.

Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 7,443 on Monday, up from 7,253 on Sunday, and up 9.8% from the 6,777 cases on Friday. Of the 190 new cases, three are from correctional facilities. Of the total cases, 1,909 are active cases, 53 are in correctional facilities and 78 in nursing homes. The number of deaths remained at 133. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Arkansas reached a new high of 121 on Monday, up from 115 on Sunday. There are 26 patients on ventilators, down from 27 on Sunday. There are 5,401 Arkansans who have recovered.

As of Monday at noon, there were 1,795,555 U.S. cases and 104,450 deaths. Globally, there were 6,217,949 cases and 372,752 deaths.

The state surpassed Gov. Hutchinson’s goal of 60,000 tests in May by conducting 80,808 tests. The governor said Monday he hopes the pattern will continue with the testing focus in June targeted at nursing home residents and workers. Dr. Smith said his “private goal” is to test 4% of the state population in June, which will require 120,000 new tests.

Smith said Northwest Arkansas is home to 1,749 of the state’s known COVID-19 cases, or 23.5%. However, he noted, the problem could be larger because the region has had only 281 tests per 10,000 people, well below the statewide average of 442 per 10,000.

“We need to do even more testing in the northwest part of the state for us to identify those cases. And the point is to not just drive up numbers, but to identify chains of transmission so that we can stop the spread of COVID-19 and ultimately to save lives,” Smith said.

Following are other Northwest Arkansas data points Smith noted Monday.
• Positivity rate among regional testing is 5.8%.
• Of the total regional cases, 43% are in the Latino community.
• Benton County, the region’s largest by percentage, has 608 cases with a 5% positivity rate.
• Of the Benton County cases, 49% are in the Latino community, and 28% are among poultry workers.
• The testing in Benton County is up to 432 per 10,000 people.

Gov. Hutchinson said Monday he met with poultry industry leaders and was impressed with what they are doing to protect workers. Of the COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, 571 are with poultry workers, and of those, 73% are from the Latino community.

The governor said poultry industry leaders are to be applauded because they have “set a national model for best practices” and are “working hard to keep the food supply chain moving.” He noted, for example, that Siloam Springs-based Simmons Foods has healthcare centers at its worksites.

Tyson Foods said Monday it will conduct facility-wide testing for COVID-19 at processing facilities and other operations in Benton and Washington counties where positive COVID-19 cases have risen. As of June 1, Tyson Foods is aware of 77 active COVID-19 cases among its nearly 24,500 employers who work in the state. They are still absent from work under the guidelines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Tyson to stay home.

“At Tyson, we believe testing can be critical to improving individual health outcomes, helping ensure plant and community safety and ensuring team members feel safe and secure when they come to work,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods. “Our testing in other parts of the country has shown a high number of positive cases among individuals who did not show any symptoms and otherwise would not have been identified, and we can do a public service in northwest Arkansas by testing at our facilities there as well.”

Matrix Medical, a provider of mobile and on-site health care services, will partner with the state and local health officials to conduct diagnostic testing for COVID-19. Tyson said it will disclose verified test results from northwest Arkansas facilities when available to health and government officials, workers and other necessary parties.

The industry does face criticism for not doing more and not acting sooner. The UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers union) has said the federal government needs to do more to protect workers by requiring more access to protective personal equipment and slowing production speeds. The union represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers.

“Make no mistake, without national safety standards to protect these workers from the coronavirus– more lives will be lost, more workers will be exposed, and our food supply will face jeopardy,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.

In an early April note, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union was directly critical of Tyson Foods.

“While the company has pledged to do better, and has started this week to share PPE with workers, put up protective barriers at some facilities, and pledged to pay union workers for time in quarantine, the fact is it’s too little too late. Workers are dying. This is inexcusable for America’s largest meat producer, which makes $40 billion in annual revenue. Yet, Tyson is just one example of an industry that is acting too late to protect a generation of workers that is feeding America during this crisis.”

Talk Business & Politics senior reporter Kim Souza contributed to this report.