COVID-19's impact on this key Delaware industry has been murky. New info reveals plenty of early infections

Julia Rentsch
Salisbury Daily Times

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information from the state about how Delaware notified the public during the Sussex County outbreak and community spread occurring there.

Throughout the pandemic, Delaware has repeatedly declined to provide coronavirus case data about individual poultry plants while COVID-19 has torn though the surrounding communities in Sussex County.

Poultry companies have said the same: They will not confirm cases at their plants due to concerns about the privacy of workers, even as state and national data pointed to these plants as hot spots for the virus.

These choices have left workers at these plants – and their families, who reside in many of the communities in southern Delaware hit hardest by the pandemic – less informed about the reach of the virus in the very places they work.

But when the state released a report in late September, one of the first glimmers of insight appeared: At one point, testing at one Delaware poultry plant returned a 30% positivity rate, according to the Delaware Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee.

Delaware runs state COVID-19 testing on the Delaware Tech campus in Georgetown on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

Several details about this statistic are still being withheld: The state will not confirm which poultry plant the testing happened at, how many employees were tested, the number of hospitalizations or the number of deaths among this group.

President Donald Trump on April 28 ordered meat and poultry processing plants to remain open, calling them "critical" to the nation's food supply, even as cases surged in these plants and surrounding communities.

Yet businesses and agencies reporting just a handful of COVID-19 cases have taken far greater action as a result of the virus's spread.

Woodbridge School District closed its campus for two weeks after reporting "several positive cases" earlier this year, prompting a temporary cancellation of high school sports. Restaurants and bars like the Starboard in Dewey Beach voluntarily closed to proactively test employees as cases spiked in Sussex County. And the state forced nursing homes to begin testing staff and residents as the virus spread throughout long-term care facilities at rates well below the 30% positivity rate revealed in the Delaware report.

Testing for COVID-19 was held at the Starboard in Dewey Beach on Monday, June 29th. Hundreds showed up for the Oral Swab Test held in conjunction with DEMA, Delaware National Guard, Starboard and Sussex County EMS.

Not until six months after the 30% statistic was calculated did the agency inform the public about the positivity rate for the unnamed poultry plant, and even then, the number was buried in a paragraph on nearly the last page of the Delaware Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee's 40-page final report.

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services has provided some additional information that helps paint a picture of what happened in the unnamed poultry plant and what the 30% number means. 

The statewide positivity rate in late April was 43.8%, according to the state's coronavirus dashboard, which was created around the same time. 

A governor's office spokesman said this high rate was a result of focusing scarce testing resources on symptomatic people who had a referral from a medical professional. 

BACKGROUND:Here's how bad coronavirus has been in Delaware's poultry industry

The community positivity rate in the Georgetown area at the time of the poultry facility testing event was higher than the statewide rate, the spokesman said, and higher still than the poultry plant rate later reported to the public.

The 30% positivity rate resulted from a non-mandatory, one-day rapid antibody testing event in late April at a poultry plant in the Georgetown area, according to Delaware Department of Health and Social Services spokeswoman Jen Brestel. The 30% figure reflects a limited sampling of poultry employees and should not be used to draw conclusions about the overall infection rate in the plant, Brestel said. 

Antibody testing determines if a person's body harbors the antibodies that result from fighting a COVID-19 infection, Brestel wrote in an email. It does not inform health care professionals if a person currently has the virus, but instead signals whether the person has the antibodies that develop one to two weeks after an infection.

Rapid antibody testing is not the same as rapid antigen testing, which detects specific proteins on the virus and can detect whether a person is actively infectious.

"The antibody test is not a diagnostic test, but rather a tool to gauge risk to allow for further infection control intervention," Brestel said in an email. "Given the observed increase in positive cases associated with poultry plants that were linked to Emergency Department visits and hospitalizations, the rapid antibody test was used to gauge the overall risk of exposure to the virus in this population given the availability of tests and the immediate turnaround time for results with the concern of a potential outbreak." 

Lack of availability of diagnostic tests in April meant the state was not able to follow up until weeks later, when the team returned to the plant for follow-up testing using the diagnostic PCR test, which can confirm an active case of COVID-19. 

Antibody tests also were used to investigate outbreaks at long-term care facilities and among first responders, as well as on the broader public as part of the Sussex County outbreak response, Brestel said. Until a diagnostic test became more widely available – like with the community curative saliva-based testing sites – antibody tests were used as risk assessment tools, she said.

However, this order did not mandate facilities to run at pre-pandemic processing capacity. It also did not guarantee them a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment, which along with testing was in short supply in April.

MORE TO THE STORY:Meat shortages expected as coronavirus disrupts production, despite executive order

All employees who were given antibody tests to test for previous infections were provided with a kit of items like soap, sanitizer, bandanas, thermometers and educational materials for employees and their families, Brestel wrote.

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.

Early in the pandemic, the availability of reliable diagnostic testing was indeed limited, according to experts. Jennifer Horney, founding director and professor of epidemiology at the University of Delaware, attributed this to problems with the tests distributed to state health departments by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The positivity rates were high at this point in time because tests were in short (supply) — and only those who were probable cases or had symptoms were being tested," Horney wrote in an email. "Since it wasn’t a complete census of all the workers, or even a scientific sample, we cannot extrapolate the 30% to all the employees."

The diagnostic testing, which was done weeks after this initial figure was recorded, showed a significantly lower number of positive cases, Brestel wrote. 

Cases in Sussex County, where most of the poultry workers live and have families, spiked higher than the state figures. State data showed 12 of every 1,000 Sussex residents were found by May 4 to have been infected by the virus compared with the statewide average of 5 out of 1,000.

COVID-19 SPREAD:Story of Sussex County's spike in cases told through the families who are suffering

As this was happening, Delaware was sharing real-time data that showed an extensive COVID-19 outbreak in the Georgetown area.

A public briefing in late April explained that more than 35% of COVID-19 tests at community testing events were coming back positive. During the increased Sussex County testing that followed, those considered high-risk individuals included family and household members of poultry workers.

"We were clear about the outbreak in our public briefings," wrote Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for the governor, in an email. "We ramped up community-level testing and tracing efforts, and funded a targeted marketing campaign about the hotspot in Sussex County in three different languages."

What plant was affected?

In March and April, officials from Perdue Farms and Mountaire Farms said they were implementing additional safety measures at their respective plants. These included checking temperatures, requiring face shields, expanded sick leave policies and temporary pay raises.

Via email, company spokespeople confirmed the 30% positive antibody testing rate did not occur at either of their plants.

A woman peers from the wellness center entrance of the Perdue chicken processing plant in Georgetown Thursday.

Information requests sent to Allen Harim and Eastern Shore Poultry Co. were not answered.

"Both of our plants are well below the state average for positive cases," wrote Mountaire spokeswoman Catherine Bassett in an email. "We have implemented numerous changes at our facilities to help prevent the spread of the virus."

BACKGROUND:During the coronavirus outbreak, are Delaware's chicken plant workers able to stay safe?

These changes have included installing plexiglass and other physical barriers between employees on the production lines, as well as systems to filter and remove toxins from the air in Mountaire's cafeterias, Bassett wrote.

Mountaire partnered with Beebe Healthcare to conduct mass testing at both its Delaware plants in May. In August, Mountaire began testing all its employees for COVID-19 weekly, based on advice from medical experts and CDC guidelines, Bassett wrote.

"If someone does test positive, we have a rigorous trace back system that allows us to identify and test any other asymptomatic employees that may have been exposed," Bassett wrote. "Both the May testing results and the recent tests are below the state average."

Bassett declined to release more specific information about the number of employees who have tested positive for the virus and how many have died from virus-related complications during the pandemic.

A worker leaves the parking lot and heads into a walkway to the Mountaire chicken processing plant in Millsboro Thursday.

Bassett also declined to comment on a health complaint recently filed with the U.S. Department of Labor about the company's Selbyville plant, aside from saying the complaint is not COVID-related and is still under investigation.

Similarly, Perdue spokeswoman Diana Souder said the company's COVID-19 numbers have been "very low." There had not been a positive case in any of Perdue's Delaware facilities in the six weeks prior to Oct. 5, she wrote.

"Perdue responded swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 to protect and support our associates, and we have been closely following and implementing current CDC guidance since the first reports of cases in the U.S.," Souder wrote. "The CDC toured several of our facilities and validated that our efforts to protect our associates are best-in-class and working."

Each case of COVID-19 confirmed in a Perdue facility was met with pandemic response protocols, work with the local health department and strict adherence to guidance from the CDC, Souder wrote.

"We’ve decided not to share any specifics on these cases out of respect for our associates’ privacy under applicable confidentiality guidelines," Souder wrote.

Environmental watchdog reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at