Workers Share Carpool Vans at Meat Plant With COVID-19 Outbreak

Burmese refugees living in Dallas travel to work at Tyson's Sherman plant using DART vehicles, raising concerns about spreading the virus on their commute

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They traveled more than 8,000 miles in search of a better life in North Texas, determined to work hard in a meat plant in Sherman, even as COVID-19 attacks their ranks, bringing home a virus that knows no boundaries.

They carpool to work, using Dallas Area Rapid Transit rideshare vans, and drive from the Tyson Foods plant to their homes – south to Dallas, in close quarters where health experts say the virus could breed.

NBC 5 Investigates has learned that among the more than 300 Tyson workers who have tested positive, dozens are refugees from the Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

About 70 of those sick refugees live in Dallas County, a long ride away in a carpool van, and some of their family members have tested positive, health officials tell NBC 5 Investigates.

“It’s very crowded, very crowded, small space for like 12 people,” said Salai Lian, a leader in the local Burmese Chin community, referring to the shared rides between the Sherman plant and the workers’ tight-knit neighborhoods in North Texas.

Lian said he knows many of the infected Tyson workers and that some carpool together.

“I worry that, you know, if that continues, we may see more and more positive (cases). Right now. I mean the COVID-19,” said Lian, a Chin language translator who is a refugee from Malaysia.

In a statement, Tyson said 326 workers from its Sherman plant have tested positive for COVID-19, more than 200 of them learning their results from tests conducted by the Texas National Guard, as NBC 5 first reported Wednesday.

One worker from the plant has died from the virus, according to the company and Grayson County officials.

Inside its plants throughout the country, Tyson has gone to considerable lengths to separate workers, installing work-area dividers and requiring face coverings.

But outside the Sherman plant, NBC 5 Investigates watched workers arrive together in DART vanpool vehicles.

Many of the riders, we have been told, are from the Burmese community who make the hourlong ride on U.S. 75, in 15-passenger vans, to and from the plant to their homes in Dallas.

Employees who use the vans pay DART a monthly fee. Tyson is not involved in the process.

The drivers of the vans, referred to as vanpool “captains,” keep the vans at their homes and pick up riders on their way to work.

DART told NBC 5 Investigates it has sent COVID-19 cleaning recommendations to the vanpool captains, urging them to wipe down surfaces in the vehicles.

The transit agency says it has not been contacted by Tyson or by any riders who have tested positive for the virus.

“I mean, they have been through many hardships,” said Lian, with COVID-19 the most recent to strike.

He said many of the workers from Myanmar fled violence and religious persecution in their native country and are afraid to speak up about safety concerns as they settle in a new country.

“It’s cost them a lot of scare and worry. And they know this virus is not a joke. This virus can kill them. This virus can cause them a lot of trouble,” Lian said.

In Grayson County, where the Tyson plant is located, officials believe the company is doing its best to protect workers.

“I think what I’ve been most impressed with, Tyson identified the issue. They put a plan in place,” County Judge Bill Magers said.

In a statement, the company said: "Our team members deserve to feel safe and secure when they come to work, and we are supporting them with the most up-to-date information and resources to take care of their health."

In a statement late Thursday, Tyson said it was taking precautions with the carpools.

“Team members who participate in rideshare programs are required to wear protective face masks, undergo temperature checks, and are subject to wellness checks and screening for symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath,” the statement said.

It added, “Drivers have been provided extra paid time to conduct daily sanitation efforts, as well as cleaning and sanitation materials and protective face masks. Vehicles are also treated by electrostatic disinfection.”

Meanwhile, DART told NBC 5 Investigates it will check on whether they can help the Tyson workers who are using their vanpool vans, including possibly providing more of them so they can travel in smaller groups.

It seems they would have a full fleet to pick from since more than 100 of the rideshare vans are currently parked because so many businesses have employees working from home.

*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.

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