Meat and poultry processing facilities have been facing a lot of challenges in the control of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Racial minority workers employed at meat and chicken processing plants have been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hispanic workers accounted for 56% of all COVID-19 cases reported in meat processing plants across the country.

CDC’s recent report provides updated aggregated information from states pertaining to the number of meat and poultry processing facilities affected by the coronavirus pandemic alongside the number and demographic characteristics of the infected workers and the number of deaths.

Important revelations from the report:

  • From 238 facilities across 23 states, COVID-19 was confirmed in 16,233 workers
  • 86 COVID-19-related deaths were reported
  • 87% of the confirmed cases occurred among racial and ethnic minority workers
  • 5,584 cases were reported in Latinos
  • 1,842 (19%) cases were reported in non-Hispanic Black worker
  • 1,332, (13%) cases were reported in non-Hispanic whites
  • 1,161 (12%) cases were reported in Asians

Commonly reported interventions and preventive strategies at meat processing facilities included implementing worker temperature, symptom screening, and COVID-19 education alongside mandating face coverings and adding physical barriers and hand hygiene stations.

The effects of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority groups aren’t fully understood. However, according to the recent data, a disproportionate burden of illness and death occurred among these populations.

The CDC report is subjected to several limitations -- Only 28 states responded and there is data only from 23 states with COVID-19 cases among meat and poultry processing facility workers, out of which 21 states reported race/ethnicity. The results might not be representative of all meat and poultry processing units and workers across the nation. Also, there have been some delays in identifying workplace outbreaks and linking cases or deaths to outbreaks. This might have resulted in an underestimation of the number of affected facilities and cases among meat and poultry facility workers.

What causes the surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in meat and poultry processing workers?

It is their risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 from prolonged close workplace contact with coworkers, shared transportation to and from the workplace, shared workspaces, congregate housing, and more importantly, frequent community contact with fellow workers. The above-mentioned factors might also be responsible for community transmission.

“Lessons learned from investigating outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing facilities could inform investigations in other food production and agriculture workplaces to help prevent and reduce COVID-19 transmission among all workers in these essential industries,” said the CDC report.

Workers queue for a coronavirus test at the Westfleisch meat processing company in Hamm as all require a test after a spike in cases at their slaughterhouse Workers queue for a coronavirus test at the Westfleisch meat processing company in Hamm as all require a test after a spike in cases at their slaughterhouse Photo: AFP / Ina FASSBENDER