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. “One woman worker at Mountaire had a disabled husband who never left the house. He got the virus first and had to be hospitalized, and then she got it. Since he was housebound, he only could have gotten it from her.”

The plant receives data from the state but does not allow testing onsite despite repeated requests by health advocates for permission to set up testing in the parking lot, Dubester says. Hispanic Liaison worked with Piedmont Health and the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC to conduct tests of Mountaire workers and family members offsite. They found an alarming 634 positive cases connected with the plant, according to Dubester.

Meatpacking’s high risks arise from the frigid air inside plants and crowded workstations on fast-moving lines. Immigrant workers often commute in packed buses and live in crowded households. Punitive sick leave and attendance policies raise risks for community spread. Many plants were slow in providing masks and adopting safety protocols after the spring outbreaks, worker advocates say. Due to incomplete test data, health officials often first learn of outbreaks or safety lapses from frightened workers.

Unfortunately, recently developed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for meat processors are weak, filled with suggestions rather than requirements, and allowing asymptomatic workers who test positive to return to work rapidly instead of adopting the widely accepted protocol of a two-week quarantine.

One company that now shares data on cases is Tyson’s Wilkesboro plant, where a quarter of 2,244 workers tested positive in April. But it took the threat of a court order to prompt Tyson to report the data, according to ProPublica, which learned through a public-records request that Tyson went silent after hiring a private testing company, leaving health officials confused on how to track infected workers.

Nationwide, 22 plants closed temporarily in April, prompting Tyson to place ads in newspapers claiming the “food supply chain is breaking.” A day later President Trump ordered plants to remain open, a move that union leaders say forces workers to choose between a paycheck and their health. The New York Times found that even as Tyson and Smithfield lobbied for favors, they were exporting record amounts of pork to China.     

Governor Roy Cooper’s recent executive order addressing racial health disparities is a start to addressing these problems. But a June 16 letter from NC Policy Watch asked the governor to do more to strengthen transparency and safety rules for meatpacking.

We risk “super-spreader” events when authorities collude with corporations to hide data on viral spread. Family members and businesses that serve plant workers deserve to be informed of risks. ProPublica learned that during an outbreak at a Tyson plant in Iowa, owners of local businesses that served plant workers or employed their relatives complained to the health department about failing to alert them earlier so they could adopt timely safety measures.

This virus crisis has laid bare our dependency on “essential” minority and immigrant workers, and it is far past time to end the shameful legacy of dumping risk on them. In a pandemic, festering systematic injustices can rapidly evolve into higher risks for everyone. The virus does not discriminate. Leaders who do can no longer claim the public’s trust.   

Sandy Smith-Nonini is an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill who writes on public health and Latino workers.  

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