Pittsboro, NC – On Friday, May 1 Chatham County Public Health Director, Layton Long released the following statement on the ongoing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the county:
“As we have seen across the United States, containing the spread of COVID-19 is exceedingly difficult in the general population and is even more challenging in settings where people live or work in close quarters such as congregate living facilities and meat processing plants. The capacity of this virus to infect others far exceeds the usual flu virus that we experience each year and continues to spread in our communities despite the best efforts of local, state and federal public health agencies, medical professionals, and countless organizations and agencies. Despite the challenges that come with responding to a global pandemic, the Chatham County Public Health Department (CCPHD), in coordination with Chatham County Emergency Management (CCEM) and many local partners, remains committed to leading collaborative efforts to slow the spread of the virus and minimize its impact on the Chatham community.
Proactive Containment Efforts
Local agencies and partners in Chatham County recognized early in the pandemic that its impacts could be considerable and widespread, particularly in those facilities and businesses that would be most vulnerable. Before the first case of COVID-19 at Mountaire Farms Siler City facility was reported, we began developing strategies and containment plans. Beginning in March, we reached out to share CDC and NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) virus containment guidance and to review practices and mitigation strategies with the facilities. Mountaire Farms was the first of these facilities we were able to meet with in late March. At that time, Mountaire Farms reported the measures that they had already put into place; placing dividers between employees, staggering lunch breaks, employee screening and plans to have all employees wear masks as they became available.
Ongoing Response and Mitigation Efforts
A main function of any local health department is to identify and control the spread of disease in the community. A primary element of disease control is contact tracing. Contact tracing begins with identifying the sick person, contacting others in close contact with that person and putting control measures in place to prevent further spread. When the CCPHD is notified of a positive case (as required by law since COVID-19 is a reportable disease), a staff member will contact the person to identify close contacts and, in most cases, their employers to inform them of actions they should take to prevent spread of the virus in the workplace. This work was initiated immediately at the Mountaire facility as soon as the CCPHD was notified of the first case. In mid-April, when additional cases of COVID-19 were reported at the plant (as Mountaire Farms has disclosed publicly), we worked with our many partners and Mountaire Farms to continue to ramp up response efforts. These efforts included mass testing of symptomatic staff and household members at the facility under the leadership of NCDHHS and in partnership with Piedmont Health Services, the NC National Guard, CCEM, and the CCPHD. This testing event was a team effort and was the first of its kind in North Carolina. Ongoing testing of symptomatic staff and household members is being led by Piedmont Health Services and the CCPHD is working with individuals testing positive to conduct contact tracing and implement control measures.
While the CCPHD does not have the authority to inspect or permit meat processing facilities, we have long understood the importance of these facilities to feeding communities as well as the potential for the virus to spread among employees and in the community. The CCPHD continues to work with local and state partners like CCEM, NCDHHS, NC Department of Agriculture (NCDA), Chatham Hospital, Piedmont Health Services, the NC National Guard and Mountaire Farms to respond to cases of COVID-19 at the Siler City facility and inform statewide response strategies at similar facilities. These response efforts have been a high priority for us and have focused on topics such as ongoing mitigation (both in the plant and the community), testing, contact tracing and medical care for employees. Because COVID-19 outbreaks in food processing plants have become a state (and national) issue, we followed the lead of experts at the NCDHHS and NCDA, who have developed recommendations for food processing plants during the pandemic. We have also advocated for the inclusion of considerations in those recommendations aimed at workers’ holistic health and well-being, including paid time off, healthcare access and pay increases given concerns around the virus.
Every One of Us Plays a Crucial Role
Since the outbreak began CCPHD staff have worked tirelessly, putting in long hours every day, to conduct contact tracing, educate the public and employers on virus containment and employ every available strategy known to slow the spread of the virus. Public health staff in every county and at every level have been given the seemingly impossible task of slowing and controlling a virus in a pandemic that the world has not seen in over 100 years. The level of dedication and commitment from these individuals to protect the public’s health has never been more evident. These are true public servants, and we appreciate their dedication and expertise. We remain grateful to the many partners who have worked together to respond to COVID-19 in Chatham County. We cannot predict when the spread of the virus will peak in the community. We can only continue to press on doing what we can to slow and contain the virus as we and our many partners work with the public, congregate living facilities, healthcare providers, essential employers and other high-risk groups to prevent infection, sickness and death.
We also understand the anxiety of essential workers during these challenging times and are extremely grateful to them as they continue to care for the sick and vulnerable, ensure we all have food to eat, keep our communities clean and safe and fill countless additional roles despite the risk of getting infected. It has become clear to all of us that these essential workers are just as critical outside of a pandemic and deserve our respect and support at all times.
Each of us in our own limited way holds the key to protecting ourselves and others from this pandemic and to getting back to some level of normalcy. We plead for the public to stay home, avoid close contact with anyone outside of their household, wear a face covering when you must go out and practice social distancing. We realize these measures are inconvenient and a nuisance but they are also one of the keys to stopping this virus. COVID-19 has had a major impact on all of our lives and we will continue to see the toll taken on those who become ill and their families. We cannot do this work alone, and we appreciate everyone in Chatham County coming together to beat this virus.”