UPDATE: Feb. 5, 2021: Tyson Foods started vaccinations at a health clinic at its plant in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, this week. It also announced a new partnership with Matrix Medical Network to address and monitor the company's efforts to protect workers from COVID-19. At least 13 Tyson locations are participating in the program, with six already receiving their safety verification and seven more in the process of being assessed, the company said. This partnership is also helping Tyson educate its workers and get them access to vaccines. According to Food Dive reporting, Tyson has had the most COVID-19 cases and deaths among its workers, compared to other meat companies. It has spent $540 million on costs related to the pandemic.
- Poultry producer Foster Farms is providing 1,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to employees at its Fresno, California, processing facility, the company said in a statement.
- Foster Farms is providing the vaccine to employees free of charge and will compensate them for the time to get it, the company said. While it is not requiring them to get the vaccine, 85% of about 1,000 employees had signed up to receive it as of Tuesday, ABC30 reported.
- Foster Farms is among the first food processing plants to have on-site clinics to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to employees. Many other companies are preparing plans to vaccinate employees once shots are available. Smithfield started making active preparations last month. JBS USA and Pilgrim's Pride both said they would give employees who voluntarily took the vaccination a $100 bonus, while Chobani plans to give its workers up to six paid hours off to get vaccinated and is considering hosting on-site clinics in its factories.
Following a difficult year during which at least 57,164 meatpacking employees have been sickened with COVID-19 and 278 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Foster Farms is one of the first to give its employees the best known protection against the virus.
The vaccination program is a partnership between the chicken processor and the Fresno County Department of Public Health. It's intended as a trial of a food manufacturing workplace vaccination clinic that could be replicated at other facilities in the county, as well as the state. Several food processors and manufacturers are located in the central California county, where food and agriculture are a major economic driver. According to a statement on Foster Farms' website, the county health department is working with the chicken processor to figure out how a large employer can successfully implement a vaccination clinic, communicate with its employees about the vaccine and administer doses in workplace settings. Foster Farms hopes to host similar clinics at facilities in other California counties.
The Fresno Foster Farms plant itself has experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. According to the Fresno Bee, more than 200 employees at that plant have been sick with COVID-19 in the past year. Four died of related complications. The plant has been active in mitigating and preventing outbreaks, administering more than 100,000 COVID-19 tests to employees in the past five months, Foster Farms said in a statement.
Company wide, Foster Farms has seen at least 21 COVID-19-related deaths among its workers. The company is also facing a lawsuit from the United Farm Workers in another California county dealing with plant outbreaks. Right now, the COVID-19 positivity rate at the plant is less than 1%, the Fresno Bee reported.
As vaccine eligibility broadens to include food manufacturing workers, this type of program may be the best way to ensure that workers both get their vaccinations and are well informed about them. The early days of vaccine rollout have been beset by poor organization and misinformation, prompting some to want to skip the vaccination. By bringing the vaccines to the plant, it ensures that all employees not only have the same access to the vaccine, but also that all employees are equally protected against COVID-19 infection. The company also has an opportunity to clearly communicate science-based information about the vaccine. The on-site clinic also removes the potentially awkward situation of forcing employees to request time off on two separate occasions to receive their vaccinations, or even not getting the shot because they want to conserve time off.
A Food Dive analysis found most states plan to allow workers to get vaccinated in Phase 1B along with other critical or essential workers. As counties and states start getting more doses of the vaccine, it may be advantageous for them to partner with manufacturers and processors like this to ensure that all employees can get both doses of the vaccination.
Although food plants have been able to adapt to the new normal, with more staggered shifts, new social distancing, extra personal protective equipment, robotics and plexiglass barriers, it's been expensive, slowed outputs and is less than ideal for work. The coronavirus pandemic has proven deadly to employees and detrimental to their morale. The Foster Farms program just started this week — the company said in the statement it hopes all employees can get their first dose by Friday — so it's too soon to say it's been a success. But mass vaccinations are a lasting solution to many of these problems, and could help bring the industry back to the volume and worker satisfaction of pre-pandemic days.