US meat-plant areas see virus spreading at twice national rate

Mike Dorning, Dominic Carey and Dave Merrill

Coronavirus spread at more than twice the national rate in U.S. counties with major meatpacking plants during the first week after President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing that they be reopened.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases jumped 40% during the week following the order in counties with major beef or pork slaughterhouses, compared with a 19% rise nationally, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The counties accounted for 10% of new confirmed cases from April 28 to May 5 while representing just 7.5% of the U.S. population.

In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. The coronavirus is devastating the nation's meatpacking communities -- places like Waterloo and Sioux City in Iowa, Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn. Within weeks, the outbreaks around slaughterhouses have turned into full-scale disasters.

Infections climbed even faster where slaughterhouses were outside major population centers, and may have a greater impact. The disparity underscores the extent to which the areas around meat processors – many located in rural regions far away from initial hot spots – have become epicenters of the virus.

The situation worsened in the first week after Trump’s April 28 executive order despite temporary closures at many meat plants.

The Trump administration has pressed to reopen meatpacking plants after a series of shutdowns due to the pandemic dramatically reduced slaughter capacity, sending pork and beef prices surging while farmers with no place to sell hogs began culling herds at huge financial losses.

More than half of workers at some American meat processing facilities tested positive for the virus. At least 30 meatpacking workers have died of coronavirus and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents food processing workers.

At least 30 meatpacking plants have closed at some point in the past two months, according to the May 8 statement by the union.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Friday that 14 major meat processing facilities were reopening. The department asked all meat processors to come up with plans to meet safety guidelines for the industry released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The counties studied house beef or pork slaughterhouses that the U.S. Department Agriculture has ranked in the largest category on a 1-to-5 scale.

In counties with major slaughterhouses that have less than 1 million people, there was a 47% increase in confirmed cases for the week. Those 72 counties accounted for 5.8% of the nation’s new infections, though they represent only 3.1% of national population.