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This WaPo article from Sep 24 tells how Postville Iowa meat plant COVID-19 outbreak was traced to a single source: free content

2020-10-04
Agriprocessors plant Postville via wikimedia commons

This article in the Washington Post from September 24, 2020 tells the story of genomic epidemiologic analysis for the COVID-19 outbreak at a meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa. It’s a long, detailed, fascinating story for anyone who is interested in how genomic epidemiology can trace the spread of the virus called SARS-COV-2 from one person to another.

The genomic study is described in this MedRxiv article, in pre-peer-review research online.

The WaPo article describes the unique situation in meat-packing plants, where minority, immigrant workers are forced to work close together for low wages at a grueling job– one that has been designated as “essential” by our president as a political favor to his agri-business lobbyist “friends.”

The story also tells how the outbreak was kept a secret. Even the employees themselves were not told who among that had gotten sick, nor how many. The aim? To keep panic from spreading in a small community with few medical resources– a weakness that could easily have been remedied by the company that controlled the plant and the town.

Ironically, in the absence of accurate, timely information, panic spread all the more quickly among the employees and people of the town. In the end, most of the people who worked at the plant were infected. More than a quarter of the plant developed antibodies in a serum study conducted after the outbreak had crested. The town and the area continue to have active cases and mask-wearing is a rare exception among the population, who seem to think the virus is gone.

The plant had a long and troubled history. From the article:

Agri Star confirmed Postville’s first coronavirus cases in mid-March, fracturing the uneasy peace among its diverse residents: the Orthodox Jews who help run the plant, the immigrants from Somalia, Mexico and Central America who make up much of its workforce, the White descendants of the German and Scandinavian farmers who founded the town generations ago.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/genetic-science-coronavirus-outbreak-iowa/

The plant was targeted by ICE:

Twelve years earlier, the plant had been the target of one of the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in history. The town rebounded after Friedman, a Canadian business magnate, bought the plant out of bankruptcy in 2009. But the effects of the raid are still felt in the way people mostly keep to their ethnic enclaves. Conversations about the coronavirus are held in hushed tones — when they are held at all.

The people working at the plant were also often members of the community:

“The problem was here, but people didn’t want to talk about it,” said one ranch worker, whose wife — an Agri Star employee — was hospitalized with covid-19 for more than a week.

The people who controlled the plant talked about it among themselves, but they didn’t tell the workers:

Agri Star acknowledged three early cases connected to the plant in a brief statement in The Yeshiva World, an Orthodox Jewish online news publication. But Toj and her colleagues, many of whom speak little English, didn’t read the article. Though Guerrero said the company told supervisors to notify anyone who worked near someone who tested positive, six workers who got sick told The Post that no one from the plant warned them about their potential exposure or asked who else they might have infected. Workers said they were forced to triangulate their risk based on snatches of rumor and snippets of fact.

The town had minimal health resources:

The closest health clinic to Postville had so few covid-19 tests that many residents were sent to Gundersen’s main hospital in La Crosse, where Kenny worked, more than an hour away.

The company could have asked for help from the state, but they waited a month after it should have known that it had an uncontrolled outbreak:

The company said it asked the state to test its workers on April 20, more than a month after it confirmed the first infections connected to the plant.

Before then, plant executives told employees to stay home if they had symptoms, Pérez said. That wasn’t much of an option for Agri Star’s low-wage employees, who, like about a quarter of all U.S. workers, have no paid sick leave. The emergency coronavirus legislation passed this March includes a requirement for paid sick leave, but it does not apply to businesses like Agri Star with more than 500 employees — even when workers are instructed to quarantine.

The article goes on to describe the acute, coronavirus-positive illnesses that several workers suffered a few days after they were instructed to clean out the offices, bathrooms, and dining areas that the rabbis had used when they had been certifying the kosher portion of the meat (the rabbis left and did not return to work.) Some of these employees conducted the cleaning without any protective equipment; most of them became ill. One of them called the plant supervisor for financial help when they were forced to stay home due to illness; no help was given.

Townspeople became anxious about the high case counts; “the county’s positivity rate was almost as high as Manhattan’s.” But the state health department refused to disclose anything about the illnesses:

But when the Republican councilman asked the state health department for a breakdown of infections in each of the county’s 18 townships, the state refused.

Officials claimed that would violate medical privacy law, even though many other states stratify case counts by Zip code. The state wouldn’t even tell Ellingson how many cases were in his own town. When he persisted, the department stopped returning his calls.

The reporting from state health department generally is deficient:

review of outbreak data led by former CDC director Tom Frieden found that no state discloses even half of what health experts consider “15 essential indicators” for managing the disease.

As the government shifted its coronavirus reporting system, numbers have vanished from CDC Web pages. News organizations have had to sue for information about racial disparities in deaths. In many Florida counties, officials won’t tell parents whether there are coronavirus cases at their children’s schools.

Iowa is no exception. The state has refused to release its pandemic plan, which guides its response to the coronavirus, saying the document is “confidential.” The health department’s covid-19 dashboard doesn’t list hospitalizations among health care workers or outbreaks in congregate facilities such as homeless shelters and prisons.

The genomic study found that a widespread outbreak centered on the meat-packing plant occurred in late March and early April. This was never acknowledged by Iowa health department officials. The people who worked for the health department were threatened with firing and even imprisonment for reporting on the outbreak. It’s all in the article, and it is outrageous.

Data from the outbreak was reported on MedRxiv by Paraic Kenny, a tumor geneticist:

“A single viral introduction led to unrestrained spread within the facility,” Kenny wrote in a study on the website MedRxiv, where scientists post “preprint” research that has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. His research, he said, showed “the collateral damage resulting from widespread dissemination of this disease from a meat-packing epicenter across a large midwestern region.”

It’s a long article, but fascinating and outraging if you have any interest in why the US has, as of today, more than 7.4 million known cases of COVID-19 reported– the largest outbreak in the world (with the possible exception of India, which has more than four times as many people as the US.)

The bottom line is that the public health system was completely unprepared to respond to the novel coronavirus, and the authorities and the owners of the meat-packing plant kept everything a secret as much as possible. No one helped– when the CDC could have responded with a lot of assistance if they had been asked.

This is a continuing outrage. As of now, the virus has penetrated to the highest level of government due to secrecy and incompetence. The expertise was available from the CDC, but it was never used because the administration tried to play it down and failed. All because of the colossal ego of one man.

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