Jackson County is known as the most industrialized county in Mississippi. It is home to the state’s largest private employer – Ingalls Shipbuilding – and many other leading industries such as Chevron, VT Halter, and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Unmanned Systems Center.
The Gulf Coast area is accustomed to dealing with natural disasters and even economic slowdowns but global pandemics are quite another thing altogether.
It is often said, “As goes Jackson County, so goes Mississippi and so goes America.”
Jackson County has the highest percentage per capita of manufacturing workers in the State of Mississippi. According to statistics from the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, 22% of employed residents in Jackson County, or 13,662 people, are employed by the manufacturing sector, with an eligible workforce of 62,213 people.
With the Executive Order Governor Tate Reeves issued on Tuesday limiting Mississippians to gatherings of 10 people or more and directing businesses to allow every employee possible to work from home, an area such as Jackson County would conceivably be heavily impacted by the social distancing measures health officials say are necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Gov. Reeves went further on Friday in a tweet, saying, “Large businesses that do not allow employees who could work from home to do so are risking some serious lawsuits down the road if major outbreaks can be traced back to them. Stay home. Stay safe. This is not to be taken lightly, and we are far from the end.”
Large businesses that do not allow employees who could work from home to do so are risking some serious lawsuits down the road if major outbreaks can be traced back to them. Stay home. Stay safe. This is not to be taken lightly, and we are far from the end.
— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) March 27, 2020
According to the Mississippi Department of Health, as of Friday morning there are 24 confirmed coronavirus cases in Jackson County with no deaths. Statewide the cases stand at 579 with 8 deaths.
The top three employers in Jackson County are considered essential businesses or services, meaning they are unlikely to shutdown or suspend operations as the response to this pandemic continues.
Chevron’s Pascagoula Refinery is the corporation’s largest U.S. refinery and one of the top petroleum refineries in the United States. It employs nearly 1600 people and is the largest tax contributor to Jackson County. Nearly 2000 contractors also work in and around the facility annually.
While they are not administering tests for COVID-19 at the Pascagoula refinery, they have implemented temperature screening for all employees, contractors and visitors entering the refinery. Chevron did not say whether any of their employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Anyone with a high temperature will be referred for secondary assessment by a medical professional,” Alan Sudduth, the Manage of Public and Governmental Affairs, told Y’all Politics.
Sudduth says while the refinery is considered an essential business, it intends to comply with Gov. Reeves’ executive orders.
“We have implemented work from home arrangements for many employees, reducing the overall number of people commuting to work and leveraging digital technology to conduct meetings,” Sudduth said. “Chevron’s facilities management teams are taking extra precautions to ensure office spaces and workstations are sanitary, and proper safeguards are in place.”
The refinery is directing employees to avoid unnecessary contact and is encouraging hand hygiene, maintaining safe distances from others, adopting social distancing guidelines where appropriate and avoiding large gatherings.
“We are restricting visitors, and are screening all workers for symptoms before they enter the facility,” Sudduth said. “We continue to monitor the situation very closely, utilizing the guidance of international and local health authorities.”
Ingalls Shipbuilding, the state’s largest private employer, has a payroll of nearly 12,000 workers. They are also an essential business as the yard is a key contractor for the Department of Defense.
Brian Cuccias, President of Ingalls, is posting updates on the company’s Facebook page almost daily, updating the workforce on where the yard stands during the pandemic.
To date, Ingalls is reporting 4 cases of COVID-19 within its employed ranks. Two of those cases were reported on Thursday evening.
“Ingalls Shipbuilding has announced two additional confirmed cases of employees testing positive for COVID-19,” Cuccias shared. “Fortunately, these individuals self-reported, allowing for prompt notifications and environmental disinfecting. As in the other cases, and in accordance with privacy laws, Ingalls will not be releasing the names of these individuals.”
Cuccias notes that those with coronavirus have been quarantined and that all shipbuilders who work near those individuals, or those who the company can identify as possibly having close contact with those individuals, have been contacted.
“Environmental deep-cleaning is underway in the individuals’ primary work spaces,” Cuccias added in the release.
Ingalls has told employees new cases will be posted once a day, including Saturdays and Sundays, to the company’s website, with each new entry including as much information as possible according to employee confidentiality laws.
As to whether Ingalls was seeking to comply with the Governor’s urging to allow as many workers as possible to work from home, Ingalls representatives did not respond at the time of this article. Not all of the yard’s employees are in craft, meaning many of the company’s engineers, human resources, and IT professionals could theoretically be considered for work at home if management allowed.
Singing River Health System is another large employer in Jackson County with nearly 2600 workers in its payroll. Their staff is on the frontline of this pandemic and is working around the clock in all facets of the healthcare system to combat COVID-19.
While medical professionals are trained to take every necessary precaution to limit the spread, that does not make them immune. Singing Media Relations Director Sarah Duffey told Y’all Politics the virus has affected one employee but not while they were on the job.
“One non-clinical employee was exposed on a vacation and is self-quarantined at home before returning to work,” Duffey said.
The employee was a physician over the age of 65.
As of the time of this article, Singing River has had 30 employees with high potential exposure to the virus with all test results negative. Duffey says the hospital’s private lab partner has turnaround times of approximately 24 hours.
It can be a balancing act for healthcare providers to comply with social distancing directives as most interactions require personal contact, and working from home is not an option for most in the industry.
“It is generally not feasible for medical professionals to work from home in most situations,” Duffey said. “We have converted many outpatient clinic visits whenever possible to televisits.”
Certain aspects of the healthcare system can be performed from home, especially in those areas that rely on information systems or online support, such as billing or human resources. Duffey did not say whether or not those workers had been allowed to make the transition following the Governor’s insistence that all workers who are able to work from home be allowed to do so.
Duffey says the hospital system is communicating regularly with their staff and is reminding them to take precautions.
“We have been extremely communicative with our team and re-emphasized through verbal, written and all forms of media ranging from social media to internal and external websites the keys to prevention which includes social distancing, hand-washing, contact avoidance and disinfecting,” Duffey said.
She says the message to their team members is to “stay strong in their minds, smart and their actions, and fearless in their spirits.”