Enlarge /. The Smithfield Foods pork factory in South Dakota is closed indefinitely after the corona virus outbreak.
View more stories
Meat and poultry processing plants have become hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks. The cases are spread across over 100 plants across the country.
Federal and state researchers in the field of public health reported on Friday May 1 that at least 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states were affected by the pandemic. In total, the researchers counted at least 4,913 sick workers and at least 20 deaths. The results are likely to be a sub-count given the variety of testing strategies used in facilities and the fact that some facilities have not submitted data.
For example, the only data researchers from Iowa stated that only 377 workers in two state plants had fallen ill. On Tuesday, May 5, Iowa health officials announced that there were at least 1,653 cases of outbreaks in four plants – meaning 10 percent or more of the workforce was sick.
At a Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, there were 730 cases alone, which corresponds to 58 percent of the workers tested in the facility. Iowa Premium Beef in Tama found 258 cases, which corresponds to 39 percent of the workers tested. There were 221 cases at a Tyson facility in Columbus Junction, 26 percent of which were tested. Tyson's Waterloo facility had 444 cases, 17 percent of the employees tested.
The three Tyson plants were closed at various locations in April for cleaning. On Tuesday, the company announced that the still closed Waterloo facility would resume operations on May 7.
"Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their families, and our communities," said Tom Hart, plant manager at Tyson's Waterloo facility, in a statement. He found that the facility had worked with local officials and health professionals to better protect workers from the disease.
Ensuring the safety of workers in meat processing plants is a particular challenge, according to the researchers behind the study, published last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the weekly report on morbidity and mortality.
According to information from risk assessments:
The challenges of the facility included structural and operational practices that made it difficult to maintain a distance of 2 meters during work, particularly on production lines, and in non-productive environments during breaks, as well as when entering and leaving facilities. The pace and physical demands during processing made it difficult to comply with the recommendations for face covering. Some workers observed that they only covered their mouths and often readjusted their face coverings during work. It has also been observed that some sites have difficulty adhering to the increased cleaning and disinfection guidelines recommended for all construction sites to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
The researchers also identified cultural and economic challenges in combating the spread of disease in meat processing plants. For example, one facility had workers who spoke 40 different primary languages. And "many workers live in crowded, multi-generation environments and sometimes share transportation to and from work, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission outside of the facility itself."
For these reasons, they concluded that these facilities are at high risk of outbreak, which "requires immediate action to reduce the risks to workers, maintain the functioning of the facilities and maintain food supply".
Break the chain
Once COVID-19 spreads in a meat factory, it can easily become a source of infection for the larger community – or vice versa. Out of the ten largest metropolitan areas with the highest newly confirmed cases per capita, five have meat outbreaks with outbreaks, the New York Times said on Wednesday.
In the meantime, the United States has already identified bottlenecks in certain meat products, including fresh beef, due to certain closures and disruptions related to COVID-19. Hundreds of Wendy's fast food restaurants have run out of hamburgers, and several grocery chains are restricting the purchase of certain meat products, the Times reported Tuesday.
The chairman of Tyson Foods ran full-page ads in The Times and Washington Post last week, warning that "the supply chain is breaking".
To better protect workers in meat factories, the researchers behind the MMRW report made various recommendations, including: For example, slowing down the pace of production, installing physical barriers between workplaces, checking employees for symptoms, requiring masks, offering paid sick leave, and strengthening sanitary and hygiene stations.
However, workers have reported that meat companies have ignored health recommendations, including the failure to provide masks and other protective equipment, and the encouragement of people to work sick since the pandemic began.
According to an independent study by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting on COVID 19 cases at meat manufacturers, there were at least 10,800 cases from 170 plants in 29 states, including 45 deaths until May 6.