COVID-19: The Rest of the Story


Jennifer Shike, FarmJournal's Pork 

May 20, 2020


As more data becomes available from “whole-herd” PCR testing of populations with COVID-19 outbreaks, experts are discovering a wide range in the number of people infected by the virus.


The interesting part? Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, senior vice president of quality for Sanford Health, a healthcare system covering the upper Midwest, says within the infected individuals, a high percentage can't think back and identify having any sort of cold- or flu-like symptoms.


“The asymptomatic rate is remarkably high,” Cauwels says.


Cauwels’ office is headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he has been studying the disease and its transmission. Not long after the COVID-19 outbreak among employees at a Sioux Falls pork packing plant, Cauwels became acquainted with swine veterinarians Tim Loula of Swine Vet Center and Dave Bomgaars of RC Family Farms on a conference call between medical doctors and these veterinarians discussing ways to safely reopen businesses and get people back to work. 


Loula and Bomgaars believed that these essential businesses could become a model for the rest (non-essentials) to get back to normal.


Since those meetings, more and more plants have been testing their entire workforce. And the results have been eye-opening.


“For instance, in a couple of the plants that we looked at, we've tested north of 1,500 to 2,000 people. We're seeing hospitalizations from those plants of maybe 10 to 20 people at most, which is a remarkably smaller number than the initial estimates of a 20% symptomatic rate in the population with a hospitalization rate of 20% of that group,” Cauwels explains. “We are still seeing people with symptoms, but many of them are mild.”


That’s probably why this disease spreads so easily – people don't think they're really that sick. Unlike influenza, which often hits people like a ton of bricks, COVID-19 doesn’t act that way, he adds.


“Few are complaining and calling in sick from work, other than the first couple of index patients who alerted us a facility may have an outbreak,” Cauwels says.


Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn, a pork producer from Missouri, says the Triumph Foods pork packing plant voluntarily PCR tested their employees as part of a new strategy in Missouri to deploy COVID-19 test kits to a potential hot spot in an effort to prevent a massive outbreak within a community. Of the employees who tested positive for COVID-19, a high percentage were walking around with no symptoms.


“I think it paid off for them because they were able to find people who might be shedding that virus, and isolate them to protect the rest of the workforce,” Chinn says. “They were able to maintain keeping their doors open, keeping people working and making sure that there was food on the table of all Missourians.”


Stop blaming packing plants ...


Testing challenges ...