Almost half the current Covid-19 hotspots in the US are linked to meat processing plants where poultry, pigs and cattle are slaughtered and packaged, which has led to the virus spiking in many small towns and prompted calls for urgent reforms to an industry beset by health and safety problems.
At least 12 of the 25 hotspots in the US – counties with the highest per-capita infection rates – originated in meat factories where employees work side by side in cramped conditions, according to an analysis by the Guardian.
In Nebraska, five counties have outbreaks linked to meat plants including Dakota county, where about one of every 14 residents has tested positive – the second-highest per capita infection rate in the US. As of Thursday, the Nebraska counties of Dakota, Hall, Dawson, Saline, and Colfax accounted for almost half the state’s 9,075 positive cases, according to data tracking by the New York Times.
Meat processing plants seem to have emerged as incubators for the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly among workers unable to perform physical distancing.
The virus spreads among people in close contact for a prolonged period. It is mostly transmitted through tiny droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth when they cough, sneeze or talk.
So far, at least 30 meat plant workers have died of Covid-19 complications, and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
On Wednesday, a fourth US agriculture department (USDA) food safety inspector died, this time in Dodge City, Kansas. The city is located in Ford county, where one in 28 residents is infected – the 11th-highest rate in the US. In Kansas, outbreaks in four of the hardest-hit counties are linked to large meatpacking plants.
Almost 300 inspectors, who have struggled to get access to adequate protective gear, are off sick with Covid-19 or under self-quarantine due to exposure, said the USDA, which regulates about 6,500 plants, including 300 or so factories with more than 500 employees.
The deregulation of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants over the past two decades has increased output and profits at the cost of health and safety, according to advocates .
Even before the pandemic, the industry was riddled with “serious safety and health hazards … including dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“The pandemic has shone a light on the meat industry where for years workers have been exploited in these plants including being penalized for not showing up even when they are sick or injured. Even now, it’s taken plants to be shut down for companies to provide protective gear for workers,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at the not-for-profit Food & Water Watch.
At least 30 plants have suspended operations over the past two months, and scores more have reduced operations amid a growing public outcry about working conditions for mostly migrant workers.
But many are now starting to reopen – a move encouraged by Donald Trump, who, in an attempt to fend off unrest about meat shortages in supermarkets, last month declared meat processing plants to be critical infrastructure.
In Nobles county, Minnesota, almost 500 workers at a large Brazilian-owned JBS pork plant have tested positive. The outbreak rapidly spread through the county, with 1,291 confirmed cases as of Wednesday compared with just a handful in mid-April. About one in 17 people in the county have now tested positive, though the infection is now slowing.
The Nobles plant reopened last week after two weeks closed. It has reportedly introduced a host of safety measures, including face shields for those working in close proximity.
Congress will vote on Friday on another Covid-19 rescue package, which includes mandatory health and safety regulations for all essential workers, including meat processing and care-home staff.