Terence Corrigan

Corrigan's Commentary

Terence Corrigan is editor of the Times-Gazette.


How many chickens equal one human life?

Friday, April 24, 2020

By Wednesday this week, 117 people in Bedford County had tested positive for COVID-19. The number of cases is currently doubling every four days in Bedford County. The Tennessee State Health Department confirmed on Wednesday what everybody here already knew. There are a lot of workers at Tyson who have contracted this deadly viral infection.

The Tennessee Health Commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, called it a “cluster.” Well how many cases does it take to qualify as a cluster? Ten, 12 or perhaps just five?

According to an online medical dictionary, a cluster is a group “of similar events occurring in close proximity in terms of both time and geography.” Well there you have it. Dr. Piercey by revealing what everyone already knew, and reporting it like it was a revelation, it became news.

Now that the state has formally determined that there’s a cluster at Tyson in Shelbyville, now what? I wrote to the health department with four questions:

• How many cases are directly associated with the Shelbyville Tyson facility?

• I have heard unconfirmed reports that your agency is conducting an investigation. Can you explain to me what exactly is involved in such an investigation? Site visits? Review of the facility's safety procedures? The number of positives? 

• Can the Department of Health order the plant closed?

Our case count is the fastest  growing in Tennessee right now and I think providing as much information about this as possible will help calm public fears.

The reply came from Shelley Walker, who’s the director of the Office of Communication & Media Relations with the Tennessee Department of Health.

Walker’s response:

“The Tennessee Department of Health is in communication with Tyson officials to review their COVID-19 mitigation plans to maintain critical infrastructure for the food supply and protect the workforce. It is important to emphasize there is no evidence that COVID-19 is a foodborne illness.

"TDH reports COVID-19 cases by county of residence of the patient, not by facility, with the exception of long-term care facilities. For further information on specifics at the Tyson plant we ask that you direct those questions to the facility.”

Dr. Piercey’s agency has decided what you should be allowed to know. What Dr. Piercey’s agency is doing by hiding important information is contributing to more health problems caused by stress. To sprinkle salt on the wound, taxpayers paid Dr. Piercey and her agency to gather this information.

When we asked Tyson about the situation at the Shelbyville plant, they replied “Since this is an ever changing situation, we’re not sharing specific numbers.” Does this mean that the virus is spreading so rapidly in their facility that they can’t keep track of it, or, more likely, they believe that they are entitled to endanger the community without any obligation to report on the extent of this life threatening problem.

So often during the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve heard government officials explaining that knowledge is essential — that an informed public is better prepared to help stop the spread. The knowledge they want you to have, however, is limited to wash your hands, stay at home and wear a mask when you go to Wal-Mart.

Perhaps we should take a lesson from what happened in Waterloo, Iowa, when political operatives were left to call the shots. Perhaps more information, delivered in a timely fashion to more people could have prevented the public health disaster that occurred there.

In Waterloo, Tyson Foods shuttered a pork processing plant but only after one worker died and 182 tested positive for COVID-19. Local Black Hawk County officials, including Mayor Quentin Hart and the county health department, had asked the Tyson and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to temporarily shut down the facility and clean it.

(So far, the response from Bedford County to the Shelbyville Tyson outbreak has been silence.)

The Iowa Governor refused to intervene saying the “economic harm caused by plant closures outweighed the health risks to workers, warning that farmers with no markets may have to euthanize their pigs,” according to a news story written by Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley.

So the governor decided that the problems created for farmers having to euthanize pigs outweighed the harm that came to Jim Orvis, 65, of Waterloo, Iowa? Orvis, who worked for Tyson, died April 19 from complications of COVID-19. Jim earned a degree in history from the University of Northern Iowa. He is survived by two brothers and two sisters. In lieu of flowers, Jim’s family asked that donations be directed to the Cedar Bend Humane Society or the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.