According to an article in the Virginia Mercury, a bill from Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, that would require large employers like poultry plants to publicly report any COVID-19 outbreaks that have been linked by the Virginia Department of Health to the worksite cleared the Senate Friday night.
Crucially, however, the measure failed to garner enough support to go into effect immediately if it passes both houses of the legislature and is signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Without an emergency enactment provision, the bill could not become effective until July 1.
Lewis, who represents a district on the Eastern Shore that has seen more than 700 workers at its Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms poultry plants sickened by COVID-19 during the pandemic and multiple deaths, needed to get 32 votes in the 40-member Senate to pass his legislation with the emergency provision. A first vote Friday only saw 29 senators support the bill, and several hours of behind-the-scenes vote whipping failed to bring an additional three over to Lewis’s side, leading the senator to remove the emergency provision.
Ultimately only 27 senators voted in favor of the legislation. All of those who opposed it were Republicans.
Transparency concerns dogged the state’s response to the spring’s major poultry plant outbreaks, which occurred both on the Eastern Shore and in the Shenandoah Valley. The Department of Health has consistently refused to provide case counts by facility on the grounds that it would violate a section of state code ordering the commissioner of health to “preserve the anonymity of each patient and practitioner.” The Virginia Department of Health lists nine deaths from COVID-19 linked to meatpacking plants across the state but does not break those down by locality.
Workers at the state’s poultry plants complained that they were not being notified of all cases at the facilities. One wing packer at a Tyson facility in Temperanceville told the Mercury in late April that “word of mouth was that we have maybe 10 or more cases up there, but us employees were only told about two cases.” Many workers found out about cases via Facebook.
In fact, as a Freedom of Information Act request by the Mercury later showed, the Tyson facility had by that time reported roughly three dozen cases to VDH.
Local governments, such as the Accomack Board of Supervisors, also struggled in late May to make reopening decisions without full information from VDH.
Lewis’s bill, Senate Bill 1362, aims to address those transparency concerns by requiring any workplace with 50 or more employees that reports five or more cases within 14 days and for which VDH determines “a likely epidemiological linkage between cases” to publicly report the name of the facility and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Currently workplaces only have to report cases to VDH.