FERN’s Covid-19 Mapping Project concludes

The entrance for a JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, included a temperature check for workers. Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

On Sept. 2, after nearly 500 days of data gathering, the final update of FERN’s Covid-19 Mapping Project was completed.

My effort to document the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic on the nation’s food system workers began last March, in the pandemic’s early days. Initially, I imagined the project would produce a one-time visualization of the spread of the virus at food manufacturing plants last spring. But it quickly became clear that the scope of worker illness, and the lack of information disclosure from companies and public health authorities, necessitated deeper investigation.

Over 17 months, I counted nearly 100,000 cases and 466 deaths from Covid-19 among farm and food processing workers in nearly every state. I identified nearly 2,000 outbreaks at worksites as diverse as fruit and vegetable farms, snack food facilities, meat processing plants, and seafood trawlers. With this uniquely comprehensive dataset in hand, FERN was able to lead the news cycle on stories about how meat plant outbreaks drove rural infection rates, the link between processing speeds and the spread of Covid-19, and the resurgence of the virus at manufacturing plants around the country last fall and winter.

However, this project was hamstrung by a chronic lack of data from private companies and public health departments. While a couple of meatpacking companies once shared worker testing data, the vast majority of food companies never reported any information on worker illness or death. A few states have been committed to full transparency about the location of Covid-19 outbreaks, but most did not collect or publish that data at any point during the pandemic. In some places, efforts to boost transparency fell victim to politics or industry influence. And no federal agency has stepped in to collect or publish occupational illness data for food system workers.

Over time, the number of reliable sources for this project has fallen significantly. Meanwhile, workers continue to contract Covid-19 and food system worker vaccination rates appear to be below the national average. There likely hasn’t been another surge like the one witnessed at meatpacking plants in the spring of 2020, but data constraints mean that the true toll of the pandemic on food system workers is unknown.

Thank you to all the readers whose interest and support fueled the continuation of this project, and to the many reporters at local and national outlets whose work laid much of the foundation for this data gathering effort. The data and maps will remain available at the FERN website, and you can explore our interactive maps in more detail on the Tableau website.

This project has had an incredible reach around the country and the world. The information below is just a glimpse at the impact we’ve had and the stories we’ve written using this data.

The Covid project’s  impact

Our data and maps were cited by dozens of local, national, and international news outlets on four continents – including the New York Times, Washington Post, AP, and NPR — that reach a combined 450 million unique readers each month.

Our data was used in reports by organizations like the Center for Public Integrity, Oxfam, AFL-CIO, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and in lawsuits filed by Public Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of workers.

Our maps and data appeared on television shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, and an episode of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines that was nominated for a 2021 News Emmy.

Many lawmakers cited our data in briefs, letters, social media, and policy, including Senators Tammy Baldwin, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Corey Booker, as well as Representative Ilhan Omar, and the data was used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an official report.

Federal and state policymakers used our data to demand accountability from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the meat industry.

Key Stories

Trump administration tried to influence state responses to meatpacking plant outbreaks, documents reveal, Leah Douglas, FERN, 6/7/21

DOJ: Tyson was not directed by federal government to continue pandemic production, Leah Douglas, FERN, 4/29/21

A year later, food workers still experience waves of Covid-19, Leah Douglas, FERN, 4/6/21

At California pork plant, confusion and safety violations as Covid-19 spread, Leah Douglas and Georgia Gee, FERN and Mother Jones, 3/8/21

Documents show scope of Covid-19 in North Carolina meat industry, Leah Douglas, Georgia Gee, and Derek Kravitz, FERN, 12/11/20

At poultry plants allowed to run faster processing lines, a greater risk of Covid-19, Leah Douglas, FERN, 9/10/20

Covid-19 cases appear to be slowing at meat plants. But companies aren’t releasing test results, Leah Douglas, FERN, 7/27/20

When Covid-19 hits a rural meatpacking plant, county infection rates soar to five times the average, Leah Douglas and Tim Marema, FERN and Daily Yonder, 5/28/20