Three months into Virginia’s vaccine rollout, many poultry plant workers have yet to be immunized

Three months into Virginia’s vaccine rollout, many poultry plant workers have yet to be immunized
Tyson workers with plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Source: Tyson Fresh Meats via Virginia Mercury)

All of Virginia has entered Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine rollout — a category that includes essential workers with some of the highest risk of contracting COVID-19.

But three months after Virginia received its first shipments, some health districts say they’re still in the planning phases of reaching out directly to poultry plant workers, who have shouldered a disproportionate burden of cases throughout the pandemic.

In many cases, those workers didn’t become eligible for the shots until the last two weeks, when most local health districts began “expanding” the 1b category to include residents beyond a narrow class of essential workers and those 65 and older. While Gov. Ralph Northam officially launched the phase in mid-January, a limited supply of doses meant most Virginians still weren’t able to access the shots.

“We actually were directed to limit our Phase 1b to first responders, school and daycare personnel and corrections workers for a time — the top three tiers of workers,” said Dr. Colin Greene, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, which covers the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley.

“Food and agriculture workers are in the fourth tier,” he added. “And there was a time when the central office asked us to hold off on that group while we were busily trying to vaccinate the most vulnerable elderly.”

There are more than half a dozen poultry plants in the region, which stretches down to Buena Vista. The Central Shenandoah Health District reported the state’s first case of COVID-19 in a poultry plant, and the northwestern region accounts for nearly 500 — or about 38 percent — of the roughly 1,326 cases within processing facilities in Virginia, according to data from the state’s Department of Health.

But both health districts have yet to schedule vaccination clinics within the facilities or arrange events specific to their workers. Greene said the plants are “high on the list” and that the department plans to coordinate PODs — public health shorthand for “points of dispensing” — sometime in the next few weeks.

READ MORE ON VIRGINIAMERCURY.COM>

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.