A worker leaves the Tyson Foods facility in Waterloo, Iowa this Friday, May 1, 2020.
Charlie Neibergall | AP
When looking for access to Covid vaccines, large employers like Tyson Foods are no better off than many individual Americans. Tight supplies usually keep them waiting.
The meat processing company received its largest vaccine allocation this week and is vaccinating workers at its plants in Missouri, Illinois and Virginia. But there are only 1,000 cans in the three states.
So far this month they have received 25 to 50 doses at a time to vaccinate their occupational health workers and workers over 65.
"We are not turning down opportunities to obtain vaccines for our team members," said Tom Brower, Tyson senior vice president of health and safety.
However, the options were limited. With 120,000 workers in two dozen states, they couldn't get nearly enough care to keep vaccination clinics on a large scale.
"We're coming into these jurisdictions and asking for 1,000 or 1,500 doses," said Dr. Daniel Castillo, Chief Medical Officer of Matrix Medical Network, Tyson's healthcare provider, who conducted on-site testing for the meat packer.
Even in states that are now providing access to vaccines for key workers, the uncertainty of vaccine supplies is hanging over large employers. The local health authorities cannot give them a schedule of when to get access.
"They don't know how much they actually have to give us. That's part of the challenge of really not having that line of sight," said Dr. Castillo.
Tyson and rival meat packers JBS and Smithfield Foods came under fire at their facilities at the start of the pandemic due to widespread Covid outbreaks. At Tyson's pork processing plant in Iowa, managers were laid off after a probe found they had bet how many workers would get sick. Congress has launched an investigation into security vulnerabilities in meat packers. Tyson and the other companies are working with the probe.
According to the Food Environmental Reporting Network monitoring group, more than 12,500 Tyson employees have been infected with coronavirus since the pandemic began. Tyson won't confirm the numbers, but says the Covid-19 protocols he has been running have kept workers safe.
The company has partnered with Matrix Medical on-site testing to contain potential outbreaks and put in place safety measures such as plastic partitions to reduce potential exposure on production lines. Last year, they also expanded the on-site health clinics and, as part of a longer-term initiative to improve the general health of workers, launched a pilot program to stop copay basic care.
While a number of companies are offering cash rewards to motivate workers to get the vaccine, Tyson has chosen to persuade its mostly Latin American and African American meat packers through an awareness campaign against the hesitation of the vaccine.
"We didn't want to take the approach of contracting the vaccine. We really want to help team members make informed decisions about their own health care and safety," said Brower.
They're not the only big employers left empty-handed in the competition for vaccine doses. Amazon, Walmart, and others are urging federal and state officials to provide access to on-site vaccinations and even contact vaccine manufacturers to ensure supplies have so far had little success.
"If every road leads to the same place, which is a rare vaccine, it will be a challenge regardless of the road," said Dr. Castillo.
Companies don't want to be seen as an attempt to cross the line – they argue that they can unburden the system for individuals by vaccinating their large employee populations. In the meantime, Tyson is giving employees four hours of paid time off to get a vaccine elsewhere if they can get an appointment.