17,000 meat, poultry processing workers in US infected with COVID-19

Workers on a production line at the Cargill meat packing facility in Dodge City trim leg quarters. MCT Photo by Keith Myers / Kansas City Star / MCT
Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 cases at meat plants hit minority workers: CDC
© Getty Images

At least 17,000 meat and poultry processing facility workers in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19, the vast majority being racial and ethnic minorities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed in a new analysis released Tuesday.

The report is the broadest look yet at the impact of the pandemic on these workers, who are disproportionately low-wage Hispanics, though it is an undercount as less than half of the states reported data to the CDC.

Overall, the CDC identified 17,358 cases of COVID-19, including 91 deaths, among workers at 264 meat and poultry processing plants through May 31. Of the 9,919 cases where race and ethnicity information were reported, 87 percent were minorities.

The Hill said, about 56 percent were Hispanic, 19 percent were Black, 13 percent were white and 12 percent were Asian, “suggesting Hispanic and Asian workers might be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in this workplace setting,” the authors of the report wrote.

The largest outbreaks in processing facilities in states that reported data to the CDC were found in Nebraska, Virginia,  Illinois, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, all reporting more than 1,000 cases among workers.

The authors noted that only 37 percent of the facilities where COVID-19 infections were found offered testing to employees. Only 22 percent closed their facilities temporarily, and 21 percent reduced the rate of animal processing.

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Eighty percent of the facilities screened workers for COVID-19 symptoms, but temperature checks and other measures miss people who have the disease but aren’t showing symptoms, a population that plays a large role in the spread of the virus. The CDC estimates about 11 percent of poultry and meat processing workers have the virus but aren’t showing symptoms.

Seventy-seven percent of the facilities required universal face coverings, while 65 percent added hand hygiene stations.

Meat and poultry processing facilities were pressured to continue operations even as COVID-19 spread in factories throughout the U.S. President Trump signed an executive order in April ordering processing plants stay open to prevent further disruptions to the food supply.


“Outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at some processing facilities have led to the reduction in some of those facilities’ production capacity,” the order read.

“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”

The authors of the CDC report wrote that the nature of the meat processing industry is conducive to the spread of the virus. Workers are often in close contact for long periods of time and share workspaces, transportation and housing with each other.

The report did not indicate why minority workers in these plants are disproportionately getting sick. While Hispanics make up 30 percent of the processing workforce and 18 percent of the total U.S. population, they account for 56 percent of infections.

“Targeted, workplace-specific prevention strategies are critical to reducing COVID-19 associated health disparities among vulnerable populations,” the authors wrote.

Latino and African American people are three times more likely than white people to be infected with COVID-19, according to data The New York Times obtained by suing the CDC. 

Black and Latino people are nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people, according to the Times.