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COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities — 19 States, April 2020

Our take —

This study presents important data about COVID-19 in occupational settings at increased risk for infection. It found 3.0% (n=4,913) of 130,578 workers at meat and poultry plants that had reported infection, were confirmed COVID-19 cases. However, because this was an aggregate assessment, it is not possible to further assess whether certain plants are were particular risk. The qualitative analysis found infection challenges across structural, occupational, socio-cultural, and economic domains, and proposed a range of solutions.

Study design

Ecological; Other

Study population and setting

Across the US, 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states were reported to have COVID-19 infections from April 9 to 27, 2020. These states included Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. Pennsylvania had the most plants affected (n = 22), while Nebraska reported the highest number of total people working at affected plants (n=19,911). Poultry plants were the most commonly reported type across all states (n= 12), followed by beef plants (n = 10).

Summary of Main Findings

Among 130,578 total workers who worked at a plant with at least one SARS-CoV-2 infection, 3.0% (n=4,913) were confirmed COVID-19 cases. Of these cases, 0.4% (n=20) died of COVID-19-related causes to date. Qualitative data from facility risk assessments found a number of challenges to reducing exposure risk, including structural challenges (such as difficulty maintaining distance during breaks and at entrances/exits), operational challenges (such as difficulty adhering to face covering recommendations), socio-cultural challenges (such as difficulty communicating through language and cultural barriers), and economic challenges (such as incentivizing employees to work while ill).

Study Strengths

This study was strengthened by its scope across a number of states with reported infections. The study not only reported challenges, but proposed solutions for the qualitative challenges it found, which helps give guidance to potential policymakers and stakeholders.

Limitations

Data were limited across all of the states: for instance, Pennsylvania reported the most number of plants with infections, but did not report how many workers were affected, or the type of facilities. These aggregate counts do not allow for more granular assessments, such as whether a particular type of plant or geographic region was more likely to experience cases among workers. There also may be testing differences between facilities, or lag time in reporting to health departments that can affect counts.

Value added

This study is one of the first to report the number of workers at meat or poultry plants who were confirmed COVID-19 cases, and the rate of COVID-19-related deaths in this population.