Bladen, Sampson counties among COVID-19 hot spots in U.S., data show


By Hayley Fowler, Tribune News Service

via The Fayetteville Observer (NC) - Jun 24, 2020


CHARLOTTE — Public health officials have raised concerns about the trajectory of coronavirus data in the Carolinas as both states peeled back restrictions and allowed businesses to reopen.


Now a spike in new COVID-19 cases is sounding the alarm at the national level.


Duplin, Bladen and Sampson counties in eastern North Carolina and Horry County on the coast of South Carolina have been flagged as hot spots as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by The New York Times over the past two weeks...


... Duplin, Bladen and Sampson counties in North Carolina are relatively rural but share a vital role in the same industry: pork.


State health officials have confirmed outbreaks at 28 meat processing plants in 21 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, including Bladen, Duplin and Sampson, the Bladen Journal reported Monday...




Duplin County sits off Interstate 40 in North Carolina, sandwiched between Fayetteville to the west and Jacksonville to the east.


It’s home to just under 60,000 people but boasts 814.5 square miles of land, making it the ninth largest county in the state in terms of area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


The county has reported at least 1,355 cases of COVID-19 and 20 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Its per capita case rate is 230 per 10,000 people — the highest in the state, The News & Observer in Raleigh reported.


That’s due in-part to outbreaks at congregant living facilities and food processing plants.


Duplin is North Carolina’s largest hog producing county — the pork industry contributes $800 million to its local economy and is responsible for more than 4,000 jobs, according to the N.C. Pork Council.


The pork producer Villari Foods as well as the Butterball turkey plant in Duplin County have confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks, WITN reported.


Butterball had more than 50 cases in April with some Latino immigrant workers complaining about a lack of protections, The News & Observer reported. Cases in the Butterball plant’s zip code had tripled to 304 from May 1 to June 11, according to the N&O, but 56 of the cases are attributable to outbreaks at two nursing homes...




In nearby Bladen County, a large outbreak at the Smithfield Foods processing facility is likely a contributing factor in its uptick of coronavirus cases.


According to N.C. DHHS, Bladen has reported 321 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. Its per capita case rate is 98.1 per 10,000 residents, The N&O reported.


About 32,700 people live in Bladen County. Its southernmost edge is just 20 miles from the South Carolina border.


Like Duplin County, Bladen’s economy is heavily dependent on the pork industry — which is responsible for almost half of the county’s jobs, according to the N.C. Pork Council.


Bladen County also is home to the world’s largest pork processing plant.


Smithfields Foods processing facility in Tar Heel confirmed its first coronavirus case in mid-April, McClatchy News reported. At the time, Smithfield had already closed several facilities with outbreaks in South Dakota, Missouri and Wisconsin.


But the plant in Bladen County has continued to operate, even as case numbers climb.


Health officials have not confirmed the number of COVID-19 cases at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant, where between 4,400 and 5,000 people work, North Carolina Health News reported. The News & Observer has reported Smithfield installed Plexiglas barriers on the production floors and break rooms in the interim, as well as implemented thermal scanning to monitor for fevers, a symptom of the illness.


N.C. DHHS has also reported two locations of Bladen County outbreaks in its congregant living facility report...




... “It ranks No. 2 in hog production and is home to second largest pork processing plant in the state,” according to the N.C. Hog Council. “The pork industry has an estimated economic impact of $1.48 billion and accounts for about 6,100 jobs, representing nearly 25% of the county’s employment”...