Why Meatpacking Plants Have Become Covid-19 Hot Spots

In Texas, the fastest growing Covid-19 outbreak isn’t in Dallas or Houston or San Antonio, the state’s most densely packed metro areas. It’s hundreds of miles to the north, in the dusty, windswept flatlands of Moore County, population 20,000. According to data reported Monday by the state health department, 19 out of 1,000 residents in Moore County have so far tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19—10 times higher than the infection rates in the state’s largest cities.person lathering hands with soap and water

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So what’s in Moore County that’s making people so sick? One of the nation’s largest beef processing facilities, where huge armies of employees slice, shave, and clean up to 5,000 cattle carcasses a day. Last month, Texas health officials launched an investigation into a cluster of Covid-19 cases linked to the massive meatpacking plant, which is operated by JBS USA, a subsidiary of the largest meat processing company in the world, based in São Paulo, Brazil.But Moore County isn’t an outlier. In recent weeks, beef, pork, and poultry processing plants across the US have emerged as dangerous new hot spots for the deadly respiratory disease , which can also cause damage to the heart, kidneys, and brain . Dozens of plants have been forced to temporarily halt operations amid skyrocketing numbers of cases and fatalities. According to a report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 5,000 plant workers in 19 states had tested positive for the virus as of April 27. In Iowa and South Dakota, close to a fifth of the workforce in the states’ largest slaughterhouses have fallen ill.
And it’s not just the US. Large Covid-19 clusters have also appeared in meatpacking plants around the world, including Canada, Spain, Ireland, Brazil, and Australia. “One, two, or three meatpacking plants—fine, you might expect that. But these outbreaks are clearly a worldwide phenomenon,” says Nicholas Christakis, head of the Human Nature Lab at Yale where he studies how contagions travel through social networks. “To me, that’s evidence that there’s something distinctive about meatpacking that’s adding to people’s risks of catching Covid-19.”So what is it about these places that makes them such dangerous incubators for the novel coronavirus? It’s a question that urgently needs answers, especially now that concerns over food shortages and an order given on April 28 by President Donald Trump classifying meat processors as critical infrastructure are already forcing workers back to the production line. Like most aspects of the pandemic, this one, too, is complicated by a dearth of data. Figuring out how exactly the disease is spreading between workers and which slaughterhouse practices are to blame is going to take time and lots of epidemiological legwork. But there are some clues.

According to the CDC’s latest report, the chief risks to meatpackers come from being in prolonged close proximity to other workers. A thousand people might work a single eight-hour shift, standing shoulder to shoulder as carcasses whiz by on hooks or conveyor belts. Often, workers get only a second or two to complete their task before the next hunk of meat arrives. The frenzied pace and grueling physical demands of breaking down so many dead animals can make people breathe hard and have difficulty keeping masks properly positioned on their faces. To allow for social distancing, the agency recommended that meat processors slow down production lines to require fewer workers, and that they stagger shifts to limit the number of employees in a facility at one time.