BURGAW — Pender County and the American Skin plant in Burgaw, which produces pork skin products, both remain silent on many details of a Covid-19 outbreak at the facility.
The county issued a press release on June 12 stating that American Skin and the Pender County Health Department were conducting Covid-19 tests and contract tracing at the plant.
“Prior to the outbreak, the company hired a nurse, who is stationed at the plant one day per week,” the county stated, but did not explain any details on how the outbreak occurred or was first identified, how many employees had tested positive, or why they had issued a press release for a private company.
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Instead, the release outlined health and safety measures undertaken by Ray Talbot, the company’s president, and the county’s health department.
Shortly after the June 12 announcement, county spokesperson Tammy Proctor said there were eight confirmed positive cases at the time, the first two identified on June 4 and June 5. But when asked on Monday how many positive cases had been identified to date, she declined to answer, suggesting the company should “properly answer these questions.”
She also declined to provide the county’s reasoning for sending a press release on behalf of American Skin.
The company was founded by Wesley and Anthony Blake in the 1930s, and in 1981, Neil Blake pushed the company to focus on the production of pork rinds, according to the company’s website. American Skin was purchased in 1998 by Wes Blake III and Les Edwards. Members of the Blake family have owned large portions of land throughout the county over the years.
The county’s press release highlighted reactive steps taken by the company and county health department.
“Free on-site COVID-19 testing is available to all our employees and employees receive full pay, including all bonuses, if they miss work as a result of COVID-19,” Talbot said in the release. “American Skin also provides a paid leave benefit for employees age 60 or above and for those at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19, as defined by CDC guidelines.”
The county also noted that its health department was offering testing to all company employees, including a drive-up service at the department.
“We have been in contact with the company over the past few weeks and we feel certain they are and have taken precautionary measures,” Pender County Health and Human Services Director Carolyn Moser said.
The company was first contacted on June 12 in an attempt to gather more information on the outbreak. On June 22, Port City Daily reached out to Talbot, asking the same questions that the county declined to answer earlier this week — How many total positive cases had been identified at the plant? How many employees had been tested? Why did the county send a press release for a private company? How did the situation develop in the first place?
On Wednesday, June 23, Talbot responded in an email that the company had “been very busy working daily to work through this new business climate.”
He outlined what he called the company’s aggressive approach to protecting employees since early March, including adopting a series of “stringent and detailed processes, protocols and protective measures that follow, and many cases exceed, CDC requirements.”
Such measures included boosting personal protective equipment “to include masks and face shields,” installing plexiglass barriers on the production floor and break rooms, implementing thermal scanning systems to identify employees with elevated temperatures prior to entering facilities, providing free but voluntary Covid-19 testing to all employees, requiring sick employees to stay at home and isolate, and “explicitly instructing employees not to report to work if they are sick or exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms.”
But he did not answer any of the questions addressed to him, including the current number of identified positive cases among his employees.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have partnered with our local and state health departments to help ensure COVID-19 cases among our employees are accurately reflected in their data, and subsequently, that of the CDC. This reporting approach ensures that the data is correctly and transparently disclosed to stakeholders by healthcare authorities,” Talbot said.
Kelly Haight, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Department, said she did not have information on specific plants in the state, but noted there were 2,702 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in 28 active clusters at meat-processing plants in 21 counties, including Pender County.
On Tuesday, when asked if the county could respond to a request for key details of the outbreak, including the current number of confirmed cases among employees, Proctor said she didn’t “know a number.”
“They have a nurse onsite offering testing,” she explained. “Our health department conducted more than 60 tests yesterday on the public. Our health department staff has been extremely busy,” she said.
The full June 12 statement from the county is below:
BURGAW – American Skin and the Pender County Health Department are conducting COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, as well as continuing measures to protect employees in the Burgaw-based plant.
“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” said Ray Talbot, company president.
Prior to the outbreak, the company hired a nurse, who is stationed at the plant one day per week.
“Free on-site COVID-19 testing is available to all our employees and employees receive full pay, including all bonuses, if they miss work as a result of COVID-19,” said Talbot. “American Skin also provides a paid leave benefit for employees age 60 or above and for those at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19, as defined by CDC guidelines.”
Additionally, Pender County Health Department is offering testing to all company employees. Drive-up service for testing is also available to anyone at the county health department located at 803 S. Walker Street in Burgaw.
“We have been in contact with the company over the past few weeks and we feel certain they are and have taken precautionary measures,” Carolyn Moser, Pender County Health and Human Services Director, said.
“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have implemented protective measures that adhere to or go beyond CDC and OSHA guidance, including hand sanitizing stations, enhanced cleaning and disinfection, plexiglass or other physical barriers, increased social distancing where possible, increased personal protective equipment such as face masks and shields, and mandatory temperature screenings for everyone entering our facilities,” said Talbot.
The health department conducts contact tracing by gathering information on COVID-19 patients and their close contacts. Patients are monitored according to State guidelines while they are in isolation at home.