COVID-19 infections in meat processing plants

When Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced the first expansion of the state’s slow-to-move COVID-19 testing in Buchanan County, it appeared he was prioritizing meat production over Black lives. After all, the state’s own data reports approximately a 3:1 disproportionate impact of the disease on Black Missourians, yet Buchanan County is 88.5% white, according to the U.S. Census.

Parson, a former cattle rancher, knows that Buchanan County is a hub of meat production in Missouri. In this case, as a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows, putting meat first also put minority health under scrutiny.

Missouri is one of 23 states that provided data to the CDC (all 50 states were queried) for its new report “Update: COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities — United States, April–May 2020.” The report supports what many have claimed: that essential workers in fields like food production are disproportionately minority, which helps to explain the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minorities, especially given that these work conditions make social distancing and other health interventions a challenge if not an impossibility.

Among 9,919 (61%) cases in 21 states that reported to the CDC with race/ethnicity data, 87% occurred among racial and ethnic minority workers. The highest percentage (56%) of those cases were in Hispanics, but 19% were in Blacks. Though these numbers are for 21 states including Missouri, if the aggregate demographics were similar to Buchanan County, this would match the 3:1 disproportionate impact on African Americans, given that 6% of the county’s population is Black. (Race/ethnicity was not provided in 39% of the data, however.)

Overall, COVID-19 was confirmed in 16,233 workers in these 23 states, including 86 COVID-19–related deaths. Among 14 states reporting the total number of workers in affected meat and poultry processing facilities (112,616), COVID-19 was diagnosed in 9.1% of workers. Missouri reported 745 COVID-19 cases among 8,469 workers in 9 facilities, and two of those people died.

In meat processing plants, people tend to work long shifts indoors close together in a noisy environment that requires shouting to be heard, and projecting the voice also projects the respiratory droplets that harbor the virus. Other complicating factors reported by the CDC include shared transportation, congregate housing, and social contact with fellow workers. Many of these factors also contribute to ongoing community transmission near these facilities.

Commonly reported interventions and prevention efforts at facilities include implementing temperature or symptom screening, public health education, mandating protective masks, and adding hand hygiene stations and physical barriers between workers. “Implementation of these interventions and prevention efforts across meat and poultry processing facilities nationally could help protect workers in this critical infrastructure industry,” the CDC advised.

Only seven of the 115 facilities profiled in the report implemented facility-wide testing for all workers. For those 5,572 workers who had positive SARS-CoV-2 test results, 14.4% reported asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections – further stressing the public health guidance that someone can be infected and infectious with COVID-19 but not feel sick.

Note that even this number is low compared to other data. Recent estimates of the total proportion of asymptomatic and presymptomatic infections from data on COVID-19 investigations among cruise ship passengers and evacuees from Wuhan, China were higher, ranging from 17.9% to nearly one-third (30.8%), respectively.

Overall, the CDC reported, at least 17,358 cases and 91 COVID-19–related deaths have occurred among U.S. meat and poultry processing workers.

The corresponding author for this report, in a team of dozens of researchers, is Michelle A. Waltenburg,

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