ACCOMAC, Va. (WAVY) — Poultry workers, labor rights representatives and Eastern Shore community organizers held a protest in the form of a car rally outside of the Perdue chicken plant in Accomac on Monday afternoon, in an effort to highlight what they say are insufficient protections at poultry plants, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A medley of nearly 50 car horns filled the air for the better part of an hour as the protesters staked out in a gravel lot opposite the plant on busy Route 13.

Organizers from Virginia Organizing, Community Solidarity for Poultry Workers, the Virginia Interfaith Center, and UFCW Local 400 held signs and painted cars with the phrase “essential not disposable.”

“All lives matter,” Felicia Matthews, a counselor who helped organize the protest, shouted into a megaphone. “We understand these workers are essential but at what cost?”

Accomack County has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases, up to 195 total as of Monday, April 27, including 143 new cases reported in the last week alone, a 275% increase compared to last Monday’s total of 52. Three people have died.

That’s the highest total increase in a week for any locality in the Tidewater region, including the seven Hampton Roads cities.

An Eastern Shore health official told the Eastern Shore Post on Wednesday of last week that more than 50% of the COVID-19 cases on the Eastern Shore were linked to Accomack County’s Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods chicken plants, the county’s two biggest employers.

The plants have about 3,000 employees combined and account for just under 12% of the county’s workforce.

“These workers are terrified to speak up over fear of retaliation,” Matthews said. “They are fearful that they are going to take [the virus] home to their families. A lot of them have young children with underlying conditions. It’s every day: Do I go to work providing for my family or risk losing my life?”

It comes as Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged the problems at the commonwealth’s 12 poultry plants, including those on the Eastern Shore, where COVID-19 cases have shot up recently.

“These poultry plants are a vital part of our food supply chain, providing food to millions of people on the East Coast, but the health of the people who work in these plants is also critically important, Northam said Monday.

Accomack (population of roughly 32,000) is ranked 4th in Virginia in cases per 100,000 people, according to Virginia Department of Health data, with 602 per 100K. Harrisonburg, Virginia, another poultry hotbed in Virginia, is ranked 2nd with 709 per 100K.

“I am very concerned about the continued rise in cases, I grew up on the Eastern Shore and I know it very well,” Northam said. “It is a rural area with excellent access to health care, but I know how quickly our medical resources there could be overwhelmed with a surge in cases.”

Northam says workers in poultry plants are particularly vulnerable and many do not speak English as a first language, and close quarters of workers’ housing make isolation and quarantine more difficult.

He says fellow governors on the poultry-driven Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) have asked for federal assistance via the CDC to help coordinate an approach to tackle the situation, and a team was scheduled to be in Virginia on Monday. The teams include epidemiologists and contact tracers, as well as language specialists that speak Creole, the language spoken by many workers at Delmarva plants.

“We will ensure that workers are screened, provided care if they are sick, and measures are taken to protect other workers not showing symptoms.”

While both Tyson and Perdue have taken steps to increase protections (Tyson closed this weekend for deep cleaning), workers and labor representatives have said the initiatives are insufficient and/or have come too late.

“We are calling on Perdue to close the plant for two weeks for a deep cleaning and pay employees during that entire time,” Matthews said.

Perdue through a spokesperson maintained their response is aimed at protecting employees and consumers. They are:

  • Notifying and coordinating response procedures with all pertinent parties (local health officials, onsite USDA inspector, Perdue HR and Wellness Staff, Coronavirus Response Leader, and facility Director of Operations);
  • Interviewing the affected Associate to determine movements and contact with others;
  • Checking recordings from internal cameras to see who the Associate may have been in close contact with (within six feet and longer than 10 minutes);
  • Thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing the entire facility beyond the full sanitation that all of the company’s facilities undergo every 24 hours, and with additional sanitization conducted in areas accessed by the affected Associate during the prior 14 days. These procedures strictly follow the CDC guidelines for this process;
  • Notifying Associates who were potentially exposed to the affected Associate and providing them with guidance for conducting a risk assessment of their potential exposure using CDC guidelines.

“Any affected Associate will quarantine for 14 days, and may return to work when approved to do so by a healthcare provider,” said Diana Souder, Director of Corporate Communications and Brand PR for Perdue. “Perdue continues to regulate strict preventive safety and sanitation standards in all our facilities. All Perdue products continue to be USDA inspected and made with the highest standards of safety and quality.”

While Souder confirms there has been positive COVID-19 cases inside the plant, she would not confirm case numbers or deaths, citing privacy concerns.

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