More than 4,900 workers in meat processing plants have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday.
The CDC said it responded to state and local authorities’ requests for on-site or remote technical assistance after learning of outbreaks in several meat and poultry facilities in early April.
The agency conducted qualitative risk assessments both on-site and remotely, gathering data on meatpacking workers and COVID-19 cases across the country.
By April 27, the CDC received data on coronavirus cases among meat processing employees from 19 of 23 states where at least one case in the industry was reported. The CDC found that there were 115 meat or poultry processing facilities with COVID-19 cases, with a total of 4,913 workers diagnosed with COVID-19.
The CDC said that 17 states reported the number of workers in their affected facilities, with 3 percent of 130,578 workers testing positive for COVID-19. Twenty COVID-19–related deaths were reported among workers.
Multiple meat processing facilities have closed in the U.S. after outbreaks among employees, prompting concerns about the availability of meat in food supply chains. President Trump recently issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act instructing meat processing plants to stay open.
Analyzing the data by state, the CDC found that South Dakota — the location of a shuttered Smithfield Foods processing facility — along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Washington and Delaware had the highest percentages of confirmed cases among workers across different plants.
Notably, the CDC outlined several reasons these outbreaks have become prevalent in meatpacking facilities. Structural and operational problems, such as the close proximity in which employees work, play a role in the virus spread, as well as socio-cultural and economic challenges. CDC researchers specifically mention that language and cultural barriers, as well as employees living in crowded spaces and being encouraged to work while ill, are all factors that make meat processing plants a breeding ground for COVID-19 outbreaks.
"As part of the national COVID-19 response, the recognized risk to meat and poultry facility operation requires prompt action to decrease risks to workers, preserve facility function, and maintain the food supply," the authors wrote.
The report offered multiple recommendations to mitigate coronavirus transmission among meat plant workers, including using face masks and face shields for employees, increased physical distancing and hand and workspace hygiene, as well as providing educational materials in different languages for maximum accessibility.
The CDC also suggested that plant managers consult with occupational safety and health professionals, as well as local health departments as employees return to work.
BREAKING NEWS ABOUT CORONAVIRUS IN AMERICA