By Carol Vaughn —
Black Voters Matter Fund, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for voter engagement, held a community health briefing May 12 for workers on the Eastern Shore, in the face of a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths among the Shore’s African American residents.
LaTosha Brown, who helped found the organization in 2017, moderated the virtual meeting, which Tami Sawyer, Black Voters Matter national field director, said was held “to talk about the truth about COVID-19.”
They were joined by local RN James Abbott; Dr. Camara Jones, an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist; and Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an AFL-CIO constituency group; along with local advocates, poultry workers and a nurse affected by the pandemic.
“The people who are actually working in those same plants with you, they are the ones who organized this…to make sure that everyone that they are on the line with every day…that all of you all have the correct information to keep you, your community, and your family safe from COVID-19 — and so that you know your rights as a worker,” Sawyer said, adding, “…There are a lot of brave voices on this call.”
Of 905 cases on the Eastern Shore as of Tuesday, 526 — 58% — were Black or African American, and 142, nearly 16%, were Hispanic or Latino.
Race was not reported for 119 cases and ethnicity was not reported for 107.
Statewide, around 23% of cases and 24% of deaths from COVID-19 were among African Americans, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said Monday.
Of 51 Shore residents hospitalized, 38 were Black or African American, and five were Hispanic or Latino.
Of 20 Shore residents who have died, 11 were Black or African American, and three were Hispanic or Latino. Nine women and 11 men have died of COVID-19 on the Shore to date.
Dr. Jones called the pandemic “deadly serious.”
“If opportunity were equally distributed across the planet, or at least in this country, and if exposure to risk were evenly distributed across the planet, or at least in this county, there should have been no way that we could divide up the population and see any one group getting more of this virus and dying more often from it,” Jones said, adding, “…But the fact that we saw this virus coming to zone in on black and brown people, where we are getting infected at least twice as much as white people, and we are dying at least three times as often — that shows that opportunity and exposure are not equally distributed in this country, and it’s really just pulling the sheets off of racism.”
African Americans are not genetically more susceptible to the virus, “but we are more exposed,” including in poultry plants and other essential businesses as well as prisons, Jones said.
“The best defense right now is to not get in the way of the virus,” she said, urging people to stay home if possible, and to wash hands frequently and practice social distancing, and wear a mask if you must go out.
“What we really need is for this government to make it feasible for as many people as possible to stay at home,” Jones said.
Jones said some workplaces’ policy of telling workers who test positive to return after five days off without symptoms is not safe.
“We don’t even know if the 14 days recommended by the CDC is safe, but the CDC has recommended 14 days…We certainly know that five days is not enough,” she said.
Abbott recommended purchasing a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen levels.
People coming to the Shore’s hospital “are coming too late…Their symptoms are just horrible,” he said.
COVID patients at the hospital “vary from young to old; we’ve had a steady average of 10 to 12 people,” he said.
Clayola Brown said workers “feel like your only choice is, are you going to work or are you going to eat.”
“Common sense is what we are asking for, and dignity and respect. We do not want to go into a modern-day plantation time situation,” she said.
Brown said the amount of COVID-19 illness among African Americans “is not a surprise to us, because the deprivations from our communities, we have been screaming about that for years and years and years — and when the community is deprived, you are going to get sick.”
With social distancing not possible in some workplaces, “the risk is high; the choices are difficult,” Brown said.
Even without a labor union, Virginia workers have access to “control factors that will protect you as a human being and as a citizen of the United States,” including OSHA — although Brown described the agency’s current leader as “draconian.”
Still, OSHA is publicly funded “and they have to hear your complaint,” she said.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is another federal agency obligated to respond to complaints.
“That’s an avenue the people can go to,” Brown said.
She also urged African Americans to develop a relationship with their representatives in Congress.
“There’s not a lot of them talking up for us who are worker people these days; we’ve got to make our own noise,” she said.
A Perdue worker who lost a close friend to the virus called for the plant to close for two weeks, saying, “Taking a temperature is not going to detect an asymptomatic person.”
“It’s just impossible to keep social distance in a chicken plant,” she said.
She has not been back to work since her friend died.
A single mother who works at the Tyson plant also spoke.
“When I first heard of this COVID outbreak…I honestly didn’t think too much of it, because this place is small; I really didn’t expect for the worst to come,” she said.
Then she started hearing about people she knew testing positive, and a cousin and a childhood friend died.
“I’m not blaming Tyson…I just wish more safety precautions were taken faster, before it took for all these cases to start being reported positive,” she said.
Because her mother has a chronic condition, “I feel like I’m putting her more at risk the more I go to work.”
A nurse at a local nursing home, who recently was fired, also spoke.
She said she spoke to her manager with concerns about a recently hired nurse who came from Heritage Hall, where there is a COVID-19 outbreak.
“She had not been tested. I asked if they had made her wait 14 days; they had not had her wait the 14 days before entering our facility. Then my fight began,” she said. She asked supervisors not to let the new person work until she was tested, but the person was allowed to continue working, she said.
She said it was not until April 27 employees got N95 masks, and not until May 4 they received isolation gowns.
On May 4, employees were told the new hire had tested positive, and on May 6, they were told a patient had tested positive.
“It was directly linked to them allowing this nurse that came in from Heritage Hall,” the nurse said, alleging she was fired for speaking out.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has proposed creating a statewide COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force to focus on racial disparities in case numbers and outcomes in Virginia.
African Americans make up around 19% of Virginia’s population, but 25.5% percent of COVID cases. Latinos make up 8.3% of the population, but 38.8% of COVID cases, Fairfax said in a May 12 letter to Gov. Ralph Northam.
Fairfax said similar task forces have been created in Michigan and other states.
Attorney General Mark Herring joined a coalition of 20 attorneys general to send a letter to President Trump, calling for him to take action to ensure the health of meat and poultry processing plant workers.
Trump signed an executive order in April invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open during the pandemic.
“If President Trump is going to force poultry and meat processing plant employees to continue working in these dangerous conditions than he must also implement critical safety measures to prevent them from getting sick,” Herring said in a press release.
“Meat and poultry processing plants, including those on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, have become hotbeds for coronavirus and it is just wrong to have anyone working in these conditions without proactively making sure that all necessary safeguards are put in place to keep them protected from infection. These are human beings working in these plants not machines and they must be treated better,” he said.
The letter urged Trump to make guidelines for protective measures and safe working conditions in plants mandatory — including isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 positive workers with full pay, among other measures.
A coalition including the Legal Aid Justice Center, Virginia Organizing, and Community Solidarity for Poultry Workers earlier this month called on Gov. Ralph Northam and state agencies to enact enforceable, COVID-19 specific, measures to protect poultry plant workers and farmworkers in Virginia.
“There is an emergency within an emergency at poultry plants and meatpacking facilities throughout the Commonwealth,” said Jason Yarashes, lead attorney and program coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center.
The coalition also asked the General Assembly to enact legislation expanding the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act to include paid leave for employers with more than 500 employees, including poultry and meat packing plants.
Perdue Farms has been reaching out beyond employees to the communities surrounding its plants.
The company hosted virtual town hall-style webinars in more than 15 communities where it has production operations, including Accomac, with the goal of furthering ongoing dialogue regarding COVID-19 with community leaders including pastors, healthcare professionals, elected officials, civic organizations, and more.
“The health and safety of our associates is our number one priority. We have a long history of supporting our associates and the communities where we work and live, and remain dedicated to doing everything we can to safeguard them during COVID-19 and beyond,” said Tracy Morris, vice president of human resources at Perdue, in a May 15 press release.