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Tyson joins growing list of companies hiring chief medical officers amid pandemic

Tyson joins growing list of companies hiring chief medical officers amid pandemic

Food packing giant Tyson Foods has hired its first chief medical officer, highlighting a growing trend among major companies trying to make it through and emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

Tyson Foods joins companies including Royal Caribbean, Constellation brands and Salesforce in hiring an in-house health care professional tasked with overseeing the safety and well-being of its employees.

Companies have typically worked with outside advisers on health initiatives but having an in-house medical professional on top of outside counsel is necessary in the new normal brought on by the pandemic, experts said.

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“I think it’s smart. Companies are thinking about bringing more employees back to work. They are concerned about getting sued by employees, so they need credible advice,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“They also want to assure employees — maybe customers in some cases as well — that what they are doing is safe. A chief medical officer looks credible, more so than getting advice from outside consultants,” he said.

Tyson Foods hired Claudia Coplein, a physician, last week to focus immediately on the company’s efforts to protect employees during the pandemic, as well as expand and promote health, safety and wellness at the company. 

“The health and safety of our team members is our highest priority and when we talk about health, we talk about it very broadly. There’s occupational health, the culture of health and wellness, and what we can do in general to help our team members live healthier lives,” said Johanna Söderström, Tyson executive vice president and chief human resources officer.

Meat processing plants quickly became hot spots for the coronavirus, prompting several to temporarily close during the pandemic. More than 4,600 COVID-19 cases and 18 deaths have been reportedly linked to Tyson Foods plants although the company wouldn't confirm the number. 

The company is also dealing with a scandal related to employee health. It suspended top officials at an Iowa pork processing plant without pay in November amid allegations that higher-ups bet on how many employees would get sick. 

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Food industry workers are essential workers included in “phase 1b” of vaccine distribution, which follows distribution to health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities. Tyson will have Coplein prepare workers for receiving the vaccine. 

“For us, it’s a lot with the education as well as the access. So how do we make sure we educate the workforce about what this vaccine is and get that information out? We have a very diverse workforce when it comes to … backgrounds and nationality so there is a lot of work we’re getting set up for,” Söderström said.

Royal Caribbean Group hired a chief medical officer in July, Calvin Johnson, who is responsible for the cruise line's global health and wellness policies. Cruises were early hot spots of COVID-19 cases and a “no sail” order was put in place to prevent the spread.

“Royal Caribbean Group is committed to going beyond requirements to truly innovative solutions,” Jonathan Fishman, a spokesperson, said when asked why the company decided to create this position. 

Johnson will also “manage its public health and clinical practice and determine the strategic plans and operations of its global healthcare organization,” Fishman said.

The cruise line is again facing health issues after reopening operations. A Royal Caribbean “cruise-to-nowhere” from Singapore was cut short last week after its passengers were ordered to stay in their cabins for over 16 hours following a positive coronavirus test on the ship.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian’s Healthy Sail Panel submitted a report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September on how to prevent or mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on ships, including testing passengers and crew members.

Beer, wine and spirits producer Constellation brands, which owns Corona, Modelo and Svedka Vodka, was an early adopter of a coronavirus-era chief medical officer when it hired one in March. 

“As a company that operates in multiple countries and states throughout the U.S., we knew we would face immediate and longer-term challenges as a result of the pandemic, which included establishing strict health and safety protocols for our hospitality venues and operations teams located in facilities that would remain open, and establishing safe reopening protocols and rules for our offices,” said Amy Martin, a spokesperson. 

Tim Malins was hired to provide health-related advice and expertise to executive, crisis management, and human resources leadership teams.

Other companies that have embraced the chief medical officer trend include Woolworths Group, the Australia-based retail giant, which hired an in-house medical professional in August, and technology company Salesforce, which hired an in-house medical professional in December 2019.

Salesforce’s chief medical officer, Ashwini Zenooz, is a radiologist and previously was the chief medical officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs and focused on electronic health record modernization. 

“On my Salesforce team, we have a focus on policy and data-privacy regulations, for example, that can enhance our ability for seamless sharing of information so patients can get better care and have better outcomes,” she said in a recent Salesforce blog.

Chief medical officers come from various backgrounds within the medical field, depending on the industry. Coplein at Tyson Foods was previously chief medical officer at MassMutual and had served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force. 

“What made Dr. Coplein’s profile so interesting for us is that she’s led large wellness initiatives in the past, which is what we’re specifically looking at as well,” Söderström said.

Tyson also recently hired an additional 200 nurses and administrative staff this year, bringing its occupational health staff to almost 600 people. 

Johnson at Royal Caribbean previously was chief medical officer for Corizon Health and before that was Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and the New York City Department of Health’s medical director.

“Dr. Johnson has a strong background in protecting public health through service delivery innovation, policy development and analysis, and leadership training and development. He has successfully led significant response efforts during active infectious disease outbreaks,” Fishman said.