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PORTLAND, Maine — Maine health officials reported a spike of coronavirus cases at a Portland meat-processing plant on Tuesday that brought the total number of positive tests to 37, equaling nearly 10 percent of Tyson Foods’ full-time workforce there.
Twenty-five new cases of the virus were reported after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted rapid testing this week, said Nirav Shah, the agency’s director. The company closed the plant on Friday after a dozen positive cases were initially found among the plant’s 391 full-time employees, a workforce predominantly consisting of immigrants.
The Tyson outbreak highlights the way that exposure to the virus can exploit existing vulnerabilities among Maine’s population of working immigrants, who often live in close-knit housing complexes and are often excluded from state and federal unemployment benefits.
“We want to be especially concerned, given that immigrants are often disproportionately affected in these situations and potentially at higher risk,” Shah told reporters on Tuesday.
The Tyson outbreak is the first one traced to a Maine workplace, with other outbreaks in congregate care settings. The spike in cases came after all of the plant’s full-time workers were tested as of Tuesday, Shah said, plus an unknown number of temporary workers and couriers who were potentially exposed. More positive cases could be reported later this week.
Shah said that the CDC is taking extra steps to ask immigrant workers if they have safe and stable housing and ensuring that they have certified medical translators to communicate safety measures during the pandemic.
Several leaders of Portland organizations serving immigrant populations confirmed to the Bangor Daily News that members of their communities were among those who had tested positive, though they did not identify them.
Tyson has “always been one of the places most immigrants get their first job when they move to Maine,” said Mufalo Chitam, director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
The company is working with the Maine CDC and “an outside medical contractor” to conduct testing for staff and will sanitize the facility and common areas this week, said Worth Sparkman, a Tyson spokesperson.
“We’ve been taking workers’ temperatures, working on social distancing measures, and relaxed our attendance policy back in March,” Sparkman said.
Sparkman said he was not able to share demographic information about the company’s workers. The company waived a five-day waiting period for short-term benefits in March, and increased coronavirus-related benefits and health screening measures last week.
Shah said that the facility would remain closed for “a few more days” after the increased number of cases. The newly reported cases at Tyson were not counted in Tuesday’s statewide tally of cases, which stood at 1,226 with 61 deaths in Maine.