Covid-19 Is Rampant Near Meatpacking Plants, But N.C. Won't Disclose All of the Data


by Sandy Smith-Nonini, Indy Week

Jul. 01, 2020


Smith-Nonini is an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill


Analyses of recent spikes of Covid-19 cases in more than a dozen rural counties strongly suggest links to outbreaks at meatpacking plants, yet North Carolina officials continue to ignore requests from health and worker advocates to enforce safety regulations at plants and disclose information about industry clusters to the public. Such secrecy not only endangers workers at the plants but also risks further community spread in rural areas.


From May 1 to June 11 cases in zip codes near meatpacking plants jumped 600 percent, or more than twice the 262 percent rise in cases statewide, The News & Observer reported. In mid-May, North Carolina led the nation for numbers of plant outbreaks, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). As of June 26, at least 2,772 meatpacking workers had tested positive for the virus in outbreaks at 28 plants, according to a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). But health officials will not report the locations of such clusters.


The most notable surge of cases at plants was in April and May. Since then plants have voluntarily cooperated with health officials, but most will not reveal data to the public. They are effectively saying to the community: “Don’t worry, trust us.” State health officials say they lack regulatory authority over the industry and do not report plant outbreaks for fear of losing plant managers’ cooperation.


I did an interview study of Latino workers in meatpacking in the early 2000s, which prompted me to drill down into the Covid-19 data. I examined the rise in infection rates in key rural counties for the two weeks ending June 25 (new cases adjusted for population) using data from USAFacts.


The data show new or ongoing surges of infections in 14 rural counties with significant meatpacking operations, including Sampson, Wayne, Bladen, and Duplin Counties—the state leaders for pork production, which together employ 19,000 workers. Twelve counties with surges are also ranked among the highest in the nation for Covid-19 cases. In addition to the four above, they include Burke, Chatham, Randolph, Johnston, Robeson, Rowan, Sampson, and Union Counties. Two others with smaller caseloads but new spikes are Surry and Wilson Counties.


While cases are rising across the state due to reopening the economy, such high levels of positive cases are typically found in urban counties. Neither can the high rural numbers be explained by outbreaks in nursing homes or prisons, which, unlike meatpacking, the state DHHS routinely tracks. Also, while elderly, non-Hispanic people make up the bulk of those who have died of the virus, DHHS data show that more than 75 percent of these positive cases are among people of working age, between 18 and 64.


A disproportionate number of those testing positive in these counties are Hispanic—31 to 73 percent of cases, which is consistent with the high numbers of Latino workers in meat plants, although Latino farm laborers, who often live in crowded housing, may explain some of those cases. A third of those testing positive near a Mountaire poultry plant with an outbreak in Chatham County this month were Hispanic, yet they make up less than 10 percent of the state population.


Also, more than half of Covid-19 patients admitted to UNC hospitals and at least two-thirds of those in ICU beds are now Hispanic, which indicates a high burden of coronavirus in the Spanish-speaking population, says David Wohl, a UNC infectious-disease physician.


Outbreaks are also ongoing at Pilgrim’s Pride in Lee County and Case Farms in Burke County.  An unidentified Latino worker from Case Farms who spoke on a June 14 group call for workers and advocates reported that 150 workers had tested positive and three had died, including one Latino, one Black, and one white worker.


“I have diabetes, so I am super scared to go to work, but because of needs I have, I have to go and risk my life,” she said in a voice that quavered with anxiety.


In April and May, significant outbreaks were reported at the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Wilkes County, the Butterball turkey plant in Duplin County, the large Smithfield pork plant in Bladen County, and several smaller plants.


In late May, a zip code survey by North Carolina Health News found positive tests for Covid-19 were unusually high in the area of the Mountaire plant (414 cases), a smaller Smithfield plant in Clinton (254 cases), and the Butterball plant (204 cases). Many workers commute to plants from other areas. This methodology, while inexact, suggests the magnitude of the problem.  


Nationwide, more than 24,000 Covid-19 cases are tied to meatpacking, resulting in 87 worker deaths so far, according to ProPublica. Industry giants Tyson Foods, JBS, and Smithfield account for more than half of all positive cases nationally, reports FERN.


To health and worker advocates in North Carolina, the state’s refusal to release data on outbreaks is suspicious.


“I believe they are just protecting the plants,” says Ilana Dubester, executive director of Hispanic Liaison in Siler City, who reports that workers at the Mountaire plant say family members are getting sick...


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