Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants linked to 8 percent of early cases: study


Up to 8 percent of U.S. coronavirus cases could have their origins in outbreaks among workers at meatpacking plants, according to a new study.

Researchers from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business analyzed coronavirus cases through the end of July and found between as many as 310,000 cases of the virus connected with proximity to meatpacking plants.

Approximately 5,200 coronavirus deaths during this period were residents of counties with a large meatpacking plant in the vicinity, and that residents of those counties were 51 percent more likely to become infected and 37 percent more likely to die. The risk persisted after adjusting for factors like race, average income and ethnic backgrounds.

“Although our estimate that 6 percent to 8 percent of COVID-19 cases are associated with livestock plants may appear high, it is important to recall that high levels of geographic heterogeneity in COVID-19 incidence can be explained by some combination of individual behavior, government policy, social-distancing compliance, and economic activity,” the researchers wrote.

“The United States, for example, has 4% of the world’s population, but approximately a quarter of all cases and deaths as of July 2020. When narrowing the geographic focus, we can imagine the distribution of COVID-19 incidence to be similarly clustered, if not even lumpier,” they added.

Possible solutions, according to the study, include stepping up meatpacking oversight and “potentially a shift toward more decentralized, smaller-scale meat production.”

The research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., also found a relationship between those facilities that sought to keep their doors open and the number of county-wide cases, with relatively more cases in counties where plants obtained waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue operations.

President Trump on April 28 signed an executive order designating such plants essential businesses and requiring them to remain open.

The study “makes clear the Trump administration cares more about industry profits than protecting America’s frontline workers in the meatpacking industry,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told Bloomberg. “This is just more confirmation that without immediate action, deadly outbreaks at these plants will quickly spread across the Midwest and cause Covid-19 cases to spike even higher.”

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