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As meat plants reopen, Iowa, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska are coronavirus leaders

As many as 18% of workers in meat and poultry plants are infected with the coronavirus in Iowa and South Dakota, while Pennsylvania and Nebraska account for one quarter of the COVID-19 cases nationwide, said CDC scientists and state public health officials. The CDC released the report as Smithfield Foods, one of the giants of the meat industry, began to reopen a hog plant that was a coronavirus hot spot three weeks ago.

The Smithfield slaughter plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has been tied to 853 infections among 3,100 workers, said the Argus Leader newspaper. In a statement listing coronavirus precautions at its facilities, Smithfield said, “The company and its team members all want the same thing, namely, to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply.” Workers and family members protested outside a Smithfield plant in Crete, Nebraska, over the weekend with signs that included “PPE for all,” reported NET.

Beef and pork production plunged in recent weeks as meat plants slowed or closed due to the virus. The USDA estimated beef and pork production last week was 65% of the level seen a year ago. Meat industry experts, such as Jayson Lusk of Purdue, say it is inevitable that consumers will see higher prices and limited availability in coming weeks.

Last week, President Trump signed an executive order to keep meat plants in operation throughout the pandemic and directing meat companies to comply with CDC guidance on minimizing the risk of exposure of workers to the virus. Trump put Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in charge of implementing the order.

Local labor leaders told the Argus Leader that Smithfield asked 250 employees of the Sioux Falls plant to report to work on Monday. The plant closed indefinitely on April 11. The Labor Department is looking into complaints by workers of unsafe conditions at the plant. The Sioux Falls plant can slaughter 20,000 hogs a day.

Smithfield resumed operations at a pork processing plant at Monmouth, Illinois, on Saturday, with a couple of dozen workers taking part in a protest, reported the Review Atlas newspaper. “We want screening to return to work,” said a protest sign. Smithfield closed the plant on April 24. “Smithfield Foods has implemented a number of precautions at the plant — including symptom screening, taking temperatures, telling employees to stay home when sick, encouraging use of PPE, and installing barriers. But workers protesting Saturday don’t think it’s enough,” said the newspaper. Slaughter capacity at the Monmouth plant is 12,000 hogs a day.

COVID-19 was diagnosed in 4,913 workers, or roughly 3%, of 130,578 employees at 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states, according to data compiled by CDC and state health officials. Twenty deaths were reported during April, the period covered by the researchers. In the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the scientists cited limitations in their findings, including lag time in reporting of cases and differing standards for testing. “Finally, widespread community transmission in some settings makes determining the source of exposure and infection difficult,” they wrote.

About 500,000 people work in meat and poultry plants.

The states with the highest infection rates among workers were Iowa at 18.2% and South Dakota at 17.3%, said the MMWR article. The rates were drawn from two plants in each state. Pennsylvania had the highest number of confirmed cases at 858, followed by South Dakota at 794, and Nebraska at 588. Some 22 plants in Pennsylvania reported cases of COVID-19, as did two in South Dakota and 12 in Nebraska.

One employee has died and 669 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus at a Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, reported the Sioux City Journal on Saturday.

“Whenever feasible, the workplace should be organized so that workers can be at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart,” said the researchers, echoing the CDC guidance to plants. “The nature of workplace modifications that might be needed to accomplish this will vary in each workplace; modifications might require changes in production practice, and feasibility will vary by workplace. Additional engineering options include stationing workers so that they are not facing each other and positioning fans so that they do not blow air from one worker directly onto another.”

In some facilities, structural and operational practices make physical distancing difficult to achieve on the production, during breaks, and at shift changes, said the MMWR. “The pace and physical demands of processing work made adherence to face covering recommendations difficult, with some workers observed covering only their mouths and frequently readjusting their face coverings while working…In addition, some employees were incentivized to work while ill.”

To read the MMWR article, “COVID-19 among workers in meat and poultry processing facilities – 19 states, April 2020,” click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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