Hundreds of poultry workers fall ill to coronavirus as consumer demand spikes

Coronavirus cases spike at poultry processing plants

Last Updated Apr 30, 2020 7:09 PM EDT

One of the nation's largest beef processing plants is shutting down after workers stopped showing up over concerns about the coronavirus. The Tyson Foods plant in Nebraska produces enough beef in one day to feed 18 million people. It's one of two dozen plants that have closed during the pandemic.

Poultry is big business in Maryland where it's the state's top agricultural product. But in Salisbury, Dr. Christopher Snyder said it's also the driving force behind a spike of COVID-19 cases.

"They share rides together to work. They're transported in vans back and forth," Snyder said of the workforce. "They don't have their own vehicles so it's a difficult situation for them."

Workers in Salisbury will have access to get tested at a stadium this weekend.

More than 260 poultry workers have fallen ill in Maryland; 400 in Georgia. In Virginia, workers protested outside a Perdue plant this week demanding testing and paid time off. It's a growing problem that has drawn in the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and FEMA.

"We understand they provide meals for millions of people, but lives are more important right now," one worker told CBS News.

coronavirus — Perdue poultry plant in Virginia
Local hospital officials have reported a spike in COVID-19 cases at the Perdue poultry processing plant on the Eastern Shore on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Accomac, Virginia. Steve Helber / AP

From coast to coast, about two dozen meatpacking plants have had to close sometime in the past two months as workers fall ill, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

That has prompted a production decrease of 25% for pork and 10% for beef — driving up wholesale prices, even as demand shoots up, too.

In Southern California, Safeway and other supermarkets are now limiting sales of pork, chicken and beef to discourage so-called "panic buying."

Stew Leonard said chicken sales at his grocery chain outside New York are up 300% from last year, but he doesn't want to charge more.

"Usually everybody goes up a percentage," he said.

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