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Covid-19 cases appear to be slowing at meat plants. But companies aren’t releasing test results

Since the pandemic began, FERN has counted over 37,000 cases and 168 deaths among meatpacking workers.

After many months of surging cases, the number of new COVID-19 infections reported at meatpacking plants appears to have slowed. Yet with limited information from the major meatpackers on new cases at their facilities, advocates say it isn’t clear whether the trend reflects a true decline.

Since the pandemic began, FERN has counted over 37,000 cases and 168 deaths among meatpacking workers. But of the nearly 200 meatpacking plant outbreaks FERN has mapped since April, just four were added since July 7.

Yet that plateau in new reported outbreaks could be related to whether or not workers are being tested, and not necessarily to a decrease in the spread of the virus, says Dr. Keeve Nachman, an associate professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University. Nachman helped author a May policy brief from the university’s Center for a Livable Future on how to protect food system workers from COVID-19 with testing and treatment measures.

“Many of these workers are low-paid, have limited access to resources, and might rely on things like company housing and company transportation. And in a lot of cases, there may not be adequate measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” he says of the working conditions at meatpacking plants. “You have people who are forced to make the decision between potentially losing their job or going to work sick.”

In those difficult conditions, regular testing is recommended to curtail the spread of COVID-19, according to Nachman’s brief. Yet the three largest meatpackers — JBS, Smithfield, and Tyson Foods — responsible for nearly 40% of the sector’s COVID-19 cases, have released little information about their future plans to test workers or release the results of testing.

JBS, which has had outbreaks at 12 plants, has several times delayed or declined testing at its facilities. There have been at least 2,660 COVID-19 cases and 14 deaths in the company’s workforce. JBS did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Smithfield, which has had outbreaks at 13 plants resulting in at least 2,004 cases and six deaths, says it has testing available for workers at any time, and has reported positive cases to local health departments. But the company is not releasing the results of those tests to the public. The company has also attempted to quash a subpoena from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the state of South Dakota that would disclose the number of cases at Smithfield’s plants in the state.

Tyson Foods was applauded when it announced this spring that it would be testing workers at several of its facilities. In press releases, the company said that its “extensive program of prevention and testing” was being rolled out in “more than 40 U.S. locations” in partnership with Matrix Medical Network, a private healthcare provider. Tyson ultimately released testing figures from 18 plants, and the most recent results were announced on June 26.

But Tyson is not planning to release test results from any other plants, according to company spokesman Worth Sparkman. Sparkman clarified that the company had “facilitated” but didn’t necessarily implement staff-wide testing at 40 locations. Tyson has about 122,000 workers in its meatpacking plants, and says it has conducted about 40,000 tests.

Magaly Licolli, who organizes poultry workers in northwest Arkansas with the worker advocacy group Venceremos, says that the lack of testing at Tyson plants concerns workers. “There are reports that cases are decreasing, but workers keep seeing workers getting sick,” she says. “There is no tracing … there is no quarantine whatsoever going on anymore. Workers want the company [to keep] testing. The pandemic is not over.”

Licolli estimates that the spread of the virus among poultry workers in northwest Arkansas, where Tyson is headquartered and has several facilities, is continuing at a similar rate as earlier in the pandemic. As of July 13, the state reported that 3,300 poultry workers had contracted COVID-19, a nearly 500% increase from the figure reported June 1.

And testing workers once is not sufficient to keep them safe, Licolli says. “They should be monitoring the workforce all the time. With them doing that one time … it was just a strategic move for them.”

Public health agencies have emphasized the importance of testing in controlling the spread of COVID-19. A July report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the spread of COVID-19 among Hispanic and Marshallese communities in northwest Arkansas recommended “serial testing at five- to seven-day intervals” at “high-burden” settings like poultry plants. The report found that 40% of the Hispanic and 2% of the Marshallese people who tested positive for the virus in those counties are poultry workers.

Generally, information about how many workers have been sickened at specific meatpacking facilities has come from state and county health departments, often at the behest of reporters. Yet the information provided by public health authorities is not always comprehensive. A recent investigation by The Associated Press in Iowa found that the number of COVID-19 cases at a Tyson plant in Columbus Junction was more than twice as high as the figure that the Iowa Department of Public Health reported in May, when the outbreak was at its peak.

Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill also declined to share specific numbers of cases or deaths in their facilities in response to a June inquiry from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, the results of which were released July 24.

“The lack of consistency in the companies’ responses about the actions they are taking to protect workers — and the failure of those actions to curb the growing number of COVID-19 cases among their workers — underscores the need for an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard,” wrote Warren in the report, referring to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace safety standard that can be implemented when workers are found to be in “grave danger.”

As the pandemic continues, Licolli is concerned about workers in isolated rural communities working in plants without unions and advocates. “They’re going to get, sooner or later, the spikes, the bigger numbers,” she says. “And who knows if we are ever going to know about that.”

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