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Reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants: MMWR

2020-08-07
EM of SARS-COV-2 from Groopman lab

Two reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants in South Dakota and Nebraska were published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) by the Centers for Disease Control. The reports show that this virus spreads rapidly in the crowded, low temperature environments of meat processing facilities.

This report of the South Dakota outbreak was dated August 7 and said:

During March 16–April 25, 25.6% (929) of employees at a meat processing facility in South Dakota and 8.7% (210) of their [outside] contacts were diagnosed with COVID-19; two employees died. The highest attack rates occurred among employees who worked <6 feet (2 meters) from one another on the production line.

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6931a2.htm?s_cid=mm6931a2_x

The second report, also dated August 7, described a testing program set up by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and run in cooperation with a meatpacking plant. Tests were offered to all workers at the plant, although it is unclear how many total workers there were there. The report begins:

Among 1,216 Nebraska-resident meat processing facility workers tested, 375 (31%) had positive results. During May 8–25, case investigators attempted to interview the 349 workers who had positive test results and available phone numbers; five refused, 99 were not reached after five attempts, and four did not report symptom status, leaving 241 (69%) of the attempted interviews for analysis.

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6931a3.htm?s_cid=mm6931a3_x

Of the positive-tested workers who were available to interview, a third reported no symptoms. Most of them were exposed at work, although only 29% reported close contact with someone visibly ill or diagnosed with infection. 13% reported contact with someone outside of work. Two of those with symptoms were hospitalized, and none died.

These two reports from MMWR are limited and inadequate, but they do show that meat processing plants are an ideal place to transmit infection with SARS-COV-2. The low temperatures and crowding probably explain the high transmission rates seen at these plants. Other meat processing facilities have had similar outbreaks, although there is less publicity.

This article from a Lincoln, Nebraska paper dated June 4 says: “More than 3,000 workers at Nebraska meatpacking and meat processing facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, and nearly every plant of any size in the state has had a significant outbreak.” With the exception of one plant run by Cargill in Nebraska City, which acted early to prevent infections.

If there were better separation between workers and more use of masks, this might reduce transmission rates– as was seen at some Cargill plants, according to the newspaper account. Some of the recommendations have been implemented at other plants since the outbreaks occurred.

These reports illustrate two features of the pandemic in this country: poor people who can’t afford to stop working and isolate themselves are most likely to be infected; and those in power will do as little as possible to help them– except for an enlightened few.

For instance, there’s this from Greg Sargent in the Washington Post:

The crisis has also revealed that minority workers are overrepresented in “essential” jobs, putting them at much greater risk, yet often without safety precautions or just compensation. The heavily concentrated meatpacking industry has been been characterized by horrifyingly substandard and lethal conditions.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/08/07/trump-fiasco-just-got-worse-that-gives-biden-hidden-opening/
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