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Medical officer at Tyson says focus on health

New exec planning to tackle virus, expand care services by Nathan Owens | April 11, 2021 at 2:07 a.m.

Tyson Foods hired its first chief medical officer in December to help with covid-19 protocols and initiatives, and to build a more health-focused food company for the future.

With more than 20 years of experience in the health care industry, Dr. Claudia Coplein said what drew her to Tyson was the company's substantial investments to protect workers from the novel coronavirus through contact-tracing, equipment updates and "always-on" testing.

"It seemed like a true commitment to enhance Tyson team members' health and well-being," she said.

Corporate leaders faced problems they'd never seen before when the pandemic began. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their employees and to expand company health care services.

In her role, Coplein is responsible for overseeing all of Tyson's health initiatives with her top priority being the pandemic. She also has a hand in expanding Tyson's health clinics at a few plants, including one in Carroll County.

While administering vaccinations to workers and protecting them from the virus is important, Coplein said her work isn't just for the short-term but to improve worker health after the pandemic.

"It's the right thing to do," she said. "We want people to stay healthy and safe."

A lot has changed in the few months Coplein has worked at Tyson. When she was appointed, the FDA had yet to approve a vaccine for public use. Data shows that more than 64 million Americans have been fully vaccinated as of Thursday. Meanwhile, companies like Tyson are administering doses to workers at no cost.

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Tyson has vaccinated more than 28,000 U.S. workers through dozens of events held at its processing plants, a spokesman said in a recent email. About 9,000 of those workers are in Arkansas and education efforts are underway to get more people vaccinated.

According to financial disclosures, the company has spent $660 million in costs directly related to covid-19 so far, including equipment updates, worker health benefits and more, and told investors to expect an additional $440 million in expenditures this year.

Before the pandemic, corporations were becoming more aware of worker health and wellness, offering programs and resources to improve the lives of their workforces, said Alan Ellstrand, associate dean of the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"It really pays off for the company when they are seen as caring," Ellstrand said. "But from a more practical standpoint, when people are on leave, it's expensive."

He said companies are "realizing they can play an active role in reducing these expenses, with some going to the extent of hiring chief medical officers to plan and lead to better outcomes for people -- I think the pandemic probably accelerated that process."

Constellation Brands, a U.S. producer of beer, wine and spirits, hired a chief medical officer in the wake of the pandemic and, while costly, the c-suite addition is seen as essential for employee health, customer safety and regulatory compliance.

"Without this kind of leadership, a single misstep can lead to PR nightmares and expensive lawsuits," Tom Kane, Constellation's human resources officer, said in an October article in Harvard Business Review.

U.S. meatpackers, required to be on-site cutting chicken, beef or pork, were more at risk of contracting the virus when the pandemic hit. Data from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting shows more than 50,000 positive cases were linked to the meatpacking industry and hundreds of workers have died as a result, leading to wrongful-death lawsuits against companies like Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride and JBS.

Coplein, a former flight surgeon in the Air Force, said she didn't know what to expect when she agreed to join the food industry, but trusted in her time with the military, where she learned how to embrace adversity and adapt to new challenges.

"I feel like I still carry that with me today," she said.

Her work schedule is different every day, usually filled with meetings related to the pandemic, cultural health work, the health clinic program or ways to enhance worker benefits, Coplein said.

The seven health clinics Tyson is testing are designed to provide primary and urgent care services, as well as promote health and wellness through services like biometric screenings, lifestyle coaching, health education and advocacy. Partner Marathon Health is operating the clinics.

"We really want to wrap our arms around team members and provide those services in a way that's easily accessible and that they feel comfortable without having to navigate the larger health care system," Coplein said.

The health clinic is a bonus to the benefits offered to full-time workers. A Tyson spokesman did not immediately respond when asked if part-time workers were eligible for free healthcare at the onsite clinics.

Ben Amick, professor and associate dean of research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, said many companies typically outsource medical and mental health treatment for their workers because it's too expensive to do otherwise.

"If they are bringing that in, with resources available in Hispanic and Marshallese languages, that would be kudos to them," Amick said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled plans last month to inspect a host of high-hazard areas under its National Emphasis Program, such as grocery stores, warehouses and meatpacking plants.

"If I was hired, I'd try to do everything to show workers that we care about them," Amick said.

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