When Saul Sanchez, a 78-year old “green hat” supervisor at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, CO, died from COVID-19 this past  April 7, nobody was thinking he might be the first of nearly 100 others in the industry to succumb to the virus. Sanchez worked at the Greeley beef plant for more than 30 years and he reported for work early in the pandemic and was among those who paid the ultimate price.

The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) is now out with the human cost of keeping meat and poultry plants running this past spring and into the summer months as COVID-19 drags on. Market disruptions and reduced production did occur, but the feared nationwide meat shortages did not.

When infections create fear and when COVID-19 deaths leave behind incredible sadness, some 525,000 meat and poultry industry employees showed up for shift after shift so American consumers never came up short of bacon or sirloins. Those 525,000 industry professionals keep about 3,500 facilities up and running nationwide, according to MMWR.

“Essential jobs” during the pandemic have included  “good news” and “bad news” elements. The good news was that unlike someone in a non-essential job,  there was an option of going to work every day.   Bad news is some of the “essential” jobs included significant risks.

The MMWR has provided the first comprehensive report on just how risky it was for meat and poultry industry employees who kept things running. Overall, 239 facilities in 28 states reported 16,233 COVID-19 cases and 86 COVID-19–related deaths among workers, as of the writing of the report. Demographic characteristics reported by 21 states show Hispanics bore the brunt of the meat industry’s COVID-19 illnesses.  And the MMWR data suggests a disproportionate burden.

“Among animal slaughtering and processing workers from the 21 states included in this report whose race/ethnicity was known, approximately 39 percent were white, 30 percent were Hispanic, 25 percent were black, and 6 percent were Asian,” according to MMWR. “However, among 9,919 workers with COVID-19 with race/ethnicity reported, approximately 56 percent  were Hispanic, 19 percent  were black, 13 percent were white, and 12 percent  were Asian, suggesting that Hispanic and Asian workers might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in this workplace setting.”

The MMWR says meat and poultry processing facilities “face distinctive challenges in the control of infectious diseases, including coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) (1). COVID-19 outbreaks among meat and poultry processing facility workers can rapidly affect large numbers of persons.”    The report documents the evolution of COVID-19’s strike on the industry.

  •  Assessment of COVID-19 cases among workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities through April 27, 2020, documented 4,913 cases and 20 deaths reported by 19 states. 
  • The report provides updated aggregate data from states regarding the number of meat and poultry processing facilities affected by COVID-19, the number and demographic characteristics of affected workers, and the number of COVID-19–associated deaths among workers, as well as descriptions of interventions and prevention efforts at these facilities.
  • Aggregate data on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths among workers identified and reported through May 31, 2020, were obtained from 239 affected facilities (those with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 case in one or more workers) in 23 states.* COVID-19 was confirmed in 16,233 workers, including 86 COVID-19–related deaths. 
  • Among 14 states reporting the total number of workers in affected meat and poultry processing facilities (112,616), COVID-19 was diagnosed in 9.1 percent of workers. Among 9,919 (61 percent) cases in 21 states with reported race/ethnicity, 87 percent occurred among racial and ethnic minority workers. 

This is important work because until this MMWR report came out unions and other non-government organizations were the only sources for information on the COVID-19’s impact on the meat and poultry industries.  When a number of meat and poultry plants around the country became “hot spots,” and emotions ran high, the unions and NGOs were often the only sources of numbers. And some alleged people were being “forced” to work in the industry.  That is not really accurate of course and takes away from the gallantry of employees who volunteer to take these risks.

The MMWR found “commonly reported interventions and prevention efforts” at the facilities included:

  • implementing worker temperature or symptom screening and COVID-19 education, 
  • mandating face coverings, 
  • adding hand hygiene stations, 
  • and adding physical barriers between workers. 

Targeted workplace interventions and prevention efforts that are appropriately tailored to the groups most affected by COVID-19 are critical to reducing both COVID-19–associated occupational risk and health disparities among vulnerable populations. Implementation of these interventions and prevention efforts across meat and poultry processing facilities nationally could help protect workers in this critical infrastructure industry.

The MMWR said states reported COVID-19 cases determined by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists confirmed case definition. 

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