Story of Sussex County's spike in cases told through the families who are suffering

Maddy Lauria Esteban Parra
Delaware News Journal

It’s been over a month since one Perdue Farms plant worker has been able to tuck his daughter into bed.

No hugs or kisses, either. 

At first, that distancing was due to fear of infecting family members with coronavirus.

It became a real threat after he found out he'd been infected with COVID-19.

"That's hard to explain to kids, why daddy didn’t tuck me into bed or hug me or kiss me," said the worker, who asked not to be identified so it wouldn't endanger his employment. "Knowing that I can catch it again or bring it home on my clothes, I'm still doing the same process."

A few people walk on the mostly empty downtown Georgetown streets during the COVID-19 outbreak on Wednesday, April 29. Rural Sussex county was declared a hot spot for the pandemic on Tuesday.

This is now life in Sussex County, where residents in particularly underserved communities no longer wonder if they will get the virus, but when. The concern was amplified last week when President Donald Trump ordered meat processing facilities like Delaware’s chicken plants to remain open as "critical" components of America’s food supply.

HOT SPOT: Sussex County declared a hot spot, as Delaware reports 12 additional COVID-19 deaths

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Twelve of every 1,000 Sussex residents have been infected by the virus, state data showed on Friday. The staggering figure, which left Gov. John Carney to declare Sussex County a hot spot, is well above the state’s average of about 5 in every 1,000 residents testing positive.

While more testing is a reason for the increase in confirmed cases, there are other factors, experts say. This includes:

  • Tight living quarters.
  • A lack of information, particularly in Hispanic and Haitian communities.
  • An immigrant population unsure of what benefits they qualify for that continues to work in order to feed and shelter themselves and their families.
  • Poultry plants, which under a presidential decree must continue operating, despite tight working conditions ideal for spreading the virus.

"It's definitely a combination of factors," said Fabricio Alarcon, Chief Medical Officer at La Red Health Center. "Those are the things, I think, that play a significant role because all of these things increase the risk of exposure: sharing the environment, going shopping in large groups, lack of access to medical care because of no income or fear of not having proper documentation."

He said it appears there has been an epidemic happening at area poultry plants, also likely due to a wide range of overlapping factors, he said.

"It is a life-changing event for people and families," he said. "Sometimes that concept is hard to grasp. We're living in a different world and we have to live in this world for the next few months until we are all safe."

For the chicken plant worker unable to hug his daughter, this different world brings a loss of hope. 

For example, there was no sense of relief upon learning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was scheduled to be at his plant on Friday. The CDC is sending teams of epidemiologists and contact tracers to the Delmarva Peninsula at the request of Gov. Carney, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

"In the past few weeks this company has done amazing things," he said of his employer. "When the CDC comes they are gonna see the amazing of it.

"But they won't realize that it is already too late. That we all are getting sick. That we all are taking this to our families."

'It’s a nightmare'

Lorena doesn’t work in a poultry plant, but her partner does. 

So when he got sick with COVID-19, it was a matter of time before she and her four children got the virus. 

"He brought the virus home," said the 38-year-old woman who didn't want her last name used for fear of repercussions. "I'm a diabetic and he got me sick and I got my family sick. There's six of us in the home."

"Because of someone's negligence others were infected."

The tight quarters that many of Sussex County's migrant population live in is fueling the spread of COVID-19. That was more than obvious to Georgetown Mayor Bill West. 

West said it was about four weeks ago he heard a man in one of Georgetown’s Hispanic neighborhoods died at home. He then learned the man had been positive for COVID-19.

"I knew right then and there, well, if it's in the Hispanic community, it's going to go tremendously fast because of close proximity of living in the house, riding back and forth to work and working in poultry plants," West said. He called the governor and they began to rally resources.

Georgetown mayor Bill West poses in front of the town hall during the COVID-19 outbreak on Wednesday, April 29. Rural Sussex county was declared a hot spot for the pandemic on Tuesday.

Like everywhere else in America, it took some time to get the additional testing and accommodations for residents in the Georgetown area as well as the homeless population and chicken plant employees. The state has been renting out two hotels in the area to house homeless people and poultry plant employees that have nowhere else to isolate, West said.

Georgetown's 19947 zip code is one of the hardest hit spots in Delaware with 32 of every 1,000 testing positive for the virus as of Friday. It’s also where the state is ramping up testing, which means positive case numbers will likely continue to climb.

"It’s a nightmare," West said. "We can't do testing just one day a week. We have got to stay on it."

'I felt sorrow for my children'

Lorena, who remains under quarantine in her Lincoln mobile home, said when her partner went to the doctor on March 30, he was told it was a strong migraine. He was given some medicine and told that he could return to work if he felt better. 

Because he had fever and chills, he stayed home. But on April 5, he drove himself to the hospital where upon learning he worked at Perdue, doctors tested him for COVID-19.

Lorena wonders why the company hadn’t told workers the virus was in the plant, which could have allowed others to be more cautious. 

After feeling tired and short of breath for days, Lorena went to the hospital where she was told they would test her for COVID-19 since her partner worked at Perdue.

"I felt sorrow for my children and for myself since I’m a diabetic," she said. "But I didn't cry. I didn't get scared. All I thought about was recuperating and asking God to help my children and me."

The following week, she said she returned to Bayhealth Hospital Sussex Campus in Milford because she felt like her body was burning from the inside. After being scolded by staff there for leaving her home, she was given antibiotics, an inhaler and told she could return home.

Then one son got sick. Then the other. Her two daughters would also fall ill. The children did not get as sick as she or her partner.

"Thank God we are recovering from this now," she said on Wednesday. "But I am worried if we still have the virus, what's the next step? What do we do?"

While part of the family remains under quarantine, Lorena said her partner was ordered back to work.

Guidance issued by the CDC on Monday said meat and poultry processing workers may be permitted to work following potential exposure to COVID-19 – "provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community."

Lorena said her partner has told her there are COVID-positive people working at the plant who are asymptomatic. 

"They need to be more cautious," she said, adding she understands the need to have these plants open and for people to work. 

In March and April, Perdue and Mountaire officials said they implemented special measures: checking temperatures, requiring face shields to be worn, placing plastic dividers throughout work stations, offering temporary pay raises and expanding and relaxing sick leave policies, among other social distancing measures. 

A Perdue plant employee who remains at home after contracting coronavirus, isn't sure these measures are enough. 

"The majority of people work two or three inches apart," said Rose, who did not want her full name used because she's not authorized to speak to the media about conditions inside Perdue. 

While the plant might disinfect the facility, Rose said the virus is in the workers. 

"People are going to continue coming out of the plants contagious," she said from her home where she locked herself up in her bedroom, avoiding contact with her husband and children for two weeks. 

"When all this began, my opinion was, 'They should close everything up for two weeks. Everything,' " she said. "If everyone in the world were to stay home, everything would change."

While that's not possible, both Rose and Lorena said people should follow the precautionary guidelines, such as washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing. 

"We need to be responsible people," Lorena said. "If we're sick, we need to go to the doctor or stay home and not go out and make others sick. 

'It’s kind of inevitable'

It's not just poultry workers who are feeling the virus' threat.

About two or three weeks ago, Nanticoke Memorial Hospital saw an increase in hospitalizations, particularly as COVID-19 reached members of the Haitian and Hispanic communities, said Penny Short, the hospital's president. 

That’s when the hospital reached out to local radio stations and other groups close to those communities to try to educate them on how to stay safe, she said. That’s led to a coordinated effort among health care providers and government officials to get additional testing sites into those communities.

The increase in hospitalizations is erasing hope people can avoid getting sick.

"At this point, it's kind of inevitable," said Katy Castillo, who's seen multiple friends land in hospitals. 

Community members gather to pack supplies in Selbyville during the COVID-19 outbreak on Wednesday, April 29. Rural Sussex county was declared a hot spot for the pandemic on Tuesday.

"We've gotten to a point where everyone knows a family or two that's been affected, the Frankford resident said. "It's getting pretty scary and we're just waiting for the point when a family member in every family is going to get infected."

The reason behind that greater spread among the Latino and Haitian communities in Sussex County isn't due simply to a lack of communication or language barriers, said Diego Fernandez Otegui, a Ph.D. candidate in Disaster Science and Management at the University of Delaware.

It's because emergency managers, public officials and front-line workers don't understand these communities, he said.

"It's not the same to fix for a trillionaire versus a father of five kids living in poverty," he said. "If you don't understand exactly how the [person] you're helping perceives what you're doing, then it's in the detriment of the entire response."

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Some community members are trying to bridge those gaps.

Bernadin Dice thought he could do that as a Seaford Police officer. But the pandemic postponed the police academy. 

Now the Seaford Police recruit, who is Haitian, is using his knowledge of his community’s language and culture to help raise awareness about COVID-19. He speaks with friends and family individually, and is helping the city in videos sharing vital information about virus in a language most Delaware residents do not understand.

For many of his Haitian friends, family and neighbors, teas and remedies are usually the go-to during times of illness. That’s been no different during the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“But that’s been their sense of hope,” the 26-year-old said. “It has not made them worried or kind or even afraid, in a way. Although, being that I’ve educated some of them… they’ve been more precautious now.”

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford. Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, or Twitter @eparra3.