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Notes from the Hot Zone: Health Centers Launch Testing Sites at Food Processing Plants

Here’s what’s remarkable: 60 percent of Community Health Centers nationwide have drive-through or walk-up testing for COVID-19, according to a new NACHC infographic. This massive pivot to address an unprecedented pandemic has happened in a matter of weeks, a testament to the nimble powers and innovation of health centers. They can sense a need and move to fill it. They leverage partnerships with other organizations — hospitals, public health departments, businesses and the military to improve public health.

This has proven to be a critical skill as COVID-19 hot zones have erupted in plants that are essential to the nation’s food supply.

Northwest Health Services staff working with the Missouri National Guard at Triumph Foods.

What happened in St. Joseph, Missouri in an instructive example of how quickly the virus can invade crowded workspaces — and indeed how partnerships and rapid responses can mitigate the impact. Northwest Health Services, which serves 15 counties in the northwest part of the state, teamed up with the Missouri National Guard to test all 2,800 employees at Triumph Foods, a pork production facility that became a COVID-19 hot zone. Some 412 employees and contract workers tested positive. The plant in St. Joseph processes 1.5 billion pounds of pork annually and is a key part of the national food chain, according to the governor.

Dr. Sharon Duclos, Medical Director of Peoples Community Health Clinic at a news conference earlier this week.

In Iowa, it’s a rapidly unfolding situation, with nearly 1,400 workers at three separate Tyson Foods pork processing plants who have tested positive. The state’s largest outbreak to date has been at the Tyson plant in Perry, a town in central Iowa, where 730 workers were confirmed to have the virus, a stunning 58 percent of those tested. In the town of Waterloo, 444 workers tested positive, and its Columbus Junction plant has had 221 confirmed infections. Many of the infected workers get their care at Peoples Community Health Clinic, Inc.. Peoples Clinic Medical Director Dr. Sharon Duclos described the experience on NBC’s The Today Show, and shared her concerns about the risk to workers once plant operations are restarted.

“Somebody at some point has to make a decision to say ‘Ok, let’s restart,’ but I can tell you, I have a lump in my throat for my patients who are getting up on Thursday, getting dressed and heading to work,” said Dr. Duclos. “So anybody making these decisions, if you don’t feel uncomfortable or if you don’t feel that uneasiness, then I don’t think you’re understanding the significance of making this decision.”

Piedmont Health and the National Guard at a plant in Chatham County, NC.

In North Carolina, Piedmont Health joined forces with the National Guard and airmen with the 42nd Civil Support Team, the public health department, LabCorp and other organizations to conduct drive-through and walk-up COVID-19 testing for employees of a Chatham County food processing plant. “When there’s a will there’s a way,” said CEO Brian Toomey. “During the first four weeks of COVID-19 we tested 149 people, with 2 positives. The next week we had 90 tests and 51 positives. That’s when we knew we had trouble and we needed to do something. We held a Zoom conference with everyone to talk about a strategy and the following week we were onsite in the parking lot at the plant. We tested 350 and 21 percent tested positive. ” Toomey says this model will be used in other counties across the state. “The hot spots are going to be where people are working closely together. We’re already seeing it with jails and nursing homes and food processing plants.”

According to news reports, COVID-19 outbreaks have spread in over 100 pork and poultry processing plants across the country.

NACHC staffer Keisha Mukanos contributed to this blog post.

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