Coronavirus Cases at Maine Food Plant Shoot Up, Shutting It Down for Now

More than 50 people have now tested positive and Maine health officials are bringing in medical translators to effectively convey their quarantine messages

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A coronavirus outbreak at a Tyson food plant in Portland, Maine, has worsened, causing it to shut down temporarily.

After an initial report of eight confirmed cases last week, the number of confirmed cases jumped on Wednesday to 51 employees. Over the weekend, the facility, which makes specialty frozen chicken products, was idled for a deep cleaning.

Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of Maine's Center for Disease Control, said 51 was the final result after more than 300 employees at the plant had been checked for the disease.

On Tuesday, he had said the tests were underway and no one would be allowed back in the plant until the tests were conducted.

“Those who have been returned positive will be placed in isolation,” Shah said.

To prevent the spread of coronavirus in its Portland facility, Tyson has installed plastic shields, is planning to spread workers apart and is giving them protective gear.

A Tyson chicken plant in Portland, Maine, is idling after the number of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus jumped from eight into the dozens.

But outside the plant's walls, the search to identify those already infected has presented some challenges.

“Many of the individuals that work at Tyson may be from immigrant communities,” Shah said Tuesday. “There may be individuals for whom English is not the first language.”

That barrier has required the Maine CDC to bring in special medical translators in addition to epidemiologists to help potentially infected people understand what’s happening.

President Donald Trump is using the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants hit hard by the coronavirus to stay open. More than a dozen plants have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers. One union says 20 employees have died.

“Words like quarantine and coronavirus may not translate so well,” Shah said. “We want to be especially concerned, given that immigrants are often disproportionately affected with these types of situations and are potentially at higher risk for discrimination.

As for its latest remarks on the situation at the plant, Tyson sent NECN/NBC10 Boston this statement: “The health and safety of our team members continues to be our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously. We’re grateful for the assistance from our third-party medical provider which has been testing all of our team members and for the collaboration with Maine CDC. We’ve suspended all operations until the results of the tests are known.”

In addition, Tyson says it does not believe there are any food safety concerns and forwarded on statements from the U.S. CDC and FDA saying there is no evidence COVID-19 can be a food-borne illness.

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