CDC updates Covid-19 numbers at meat plants but uses weeks-old data

As of May 31, more than 16,000 meat and poultry processing workers in 23 states had contracted Covid-19, and 86 had died of the disease, said a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday. Nearly 90 percent of the affected workers were identified as Hispanic, Black, or Asian. According to more up-to-date data, however, the numbers for infected and deceased workers are actually much higher.

The report, which relied on information provided by state health departments, updated the agency’s May 1 findings, which reported that as of April 27, nearly 5,000 workers had contracted the virus and 20 had died in 19 states. In the new report, the CDC identified “distinctive factors” that increase meatpacking workers’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus, including “prolonged close workplace contact with coworkers (within 6 feet for ≥15 minutes) for long time periods (8–12 hour shifts), shared work spaces, shared transportation to and from the workplace, congregate housing, and frequent community contact with fellow workers.”

Meat processing facilities reported taking a variety of measures to protect workers, although adoption of those measures was far from universal. The largest share of facilities — 80 percent — reported screening workers when they enter the facility, and 77 percent reported requiring workers to wear face coverings. But just 37 percent reported offering Covid-19 testing to workers, and only 22 percent said they had closed the facility temporarily to prevent the spread of the virus.

The data collected by the CDC is subject to several limitations, the agency acknowledged. Just 28 states participated in the data collection process, and the statistics reported only laboratory-confirmed cases of Covid-19, so the figures “might not be representative of all U.S. meat and poultry processing facilities and workers,” the agency wrote. And the self-reported nature of the data means that it is likely not a comprehensive review of either meatpacking plants’ approaches to curtailing the spread of the virus or the severity of workers’ illnesses.

The number of cases reported by the CDC is also several weeks out of date. As of July 8, FERN had counted 32,630 cases of Covid-19 and 123 deaths among workers at 292 meatpacking facilities. According to the CDC’s estimate of the overall meatpacking industry, those numbers would represent about 6 percent of meatpacking workers and 8 percent of meatpacking plants.

FERN had counted more than 40,000 cases of Covid-19 among all food sector workers as of July 8, including workers at meat and food processing facilities and on farms and ranches. At least 138 workers had died.