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Tyson Foods Inc. plans to test thousands of workers for covid-19 under an expanded effort to combat the virus and keep its processing plants running.

Tyson, the nation's largest producer of beef, pork and chicken, will randomly test workers with or without symptoms under its new system. Workers will also be tested if they were near someone who tested positive or showed symptoms of the virus.

The testing is in addition to the daily health screenings that workers undergo when they arrive at Tyson's 140 U.S. production facilities, the Springdale-based company said Thursday.

Tyson is adding nearly 200 nurses and support staff members to its 400-person medical team. It is also hiring a chief medical officer. Tyson developed the plan with Matrix Medical, a health care provider.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 250,000 meatpacking workers, supported this plan and urged others to follow Tyson's lead.

Meatpacking plants, where workers stand close to one another making repetitive cuts, have been hot spots for the coronavirus.

Approximately 14,214 plant workers in the U.S. were infected, and at least 65 died in the first 100 days of the pandemic, the United Food and Commercial Workers union has said. Protesters have rallied in Arkansas requesting plant closures and better protections for slaughterhouse workers.

Tyson has implemented several measures in response to the virus. In April, it bought 150 thermal temperature scanners to test workers when they arrive. It also put up workstation dividers, distributed masks and expanded break rooms.

Tyson said it has tested about one-third of its workers and believes less than 1% of its workers have active cases of covid-19.

[RELATED » Interactive: Economic impacts of covid-19 » arkansasonline.com/economy/]

Donnie King, Tyson's group president and chief administrative officer, said randomly testing workers allows the company to stay ahead of the virus. Tyson has been testing this method at a few facilities and seen great success, he said in a statement Thursday.

Petitioners have accused Tyson of making false claims about its workers and labor conditions during the pandemic. Advocates Food and Water Watch and Venceremos, of Springdale, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday. The families of three workers who died after contracting the coronavirus in an Iowa packing plant sued Tyson last month.

Tyson did not disclose what the cost is to expand testing and hire new staffing, but a spokesman said it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars this year fighting the virus.

The expanded testing is only in the U.S. for now. Tyson has plants in Thailand, China, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia and other countries.

Dr. Jose Romero, chief medical officer at the Arkansas Department of Health, said Tyson's plan will help drive the rates of infection down in its processing plants and in worker communities.

"It's a domino effect," he said. "If you catch it earlier at workplaces ... it won't go into the communities."

The number of active cases linked to the poultry industry in Arkansas have declined to 264 in the past month, according to the Department of Health. There have been 3,975 poultry worker cases in the state, so far.

"I haven't seen any major increase here in the last week," he said about poultry worker cases. The biggest issues are in nursing homes and correctional facilities, Romero said.

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