As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the country this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday meatpacking plants still present challenges in preventing transmission of the virus and that racial or ethnic minority workers are at much higher risk of getting sick and dying.
A new CDC analysis found that 16,233 workers in meat and poultry processing plants were infected with COVID-19 in April or May, according to data reported by 23 states. Eighty-seven percent of the workers were racial or ethnic minorities and 86 have died.
Of the 14 states that reported the total number of workers in affected meat and poultry facilities, 9% of all workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. In specific facilities the positive rate ranged from 3.1% to 24.5% per facility.
"High population-density workplace settings such as meat and poultry processing facilities present ongoing challenges to preventing and reducing the risk for SARS-CoV-2 transmission," CDC wrote in its report, saying more widespread strategies like universal testing could help limit the risk for workers.
"Targeted, workplace-specific prevention strategies are critical to reducing COVID-19–associated health disparities among vulnerable populations."
Experts in workplace safety like David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University and former head of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, say the federal government is missing opportunities to do more to help workers in these high-risk jobs by requiring all employers to implement more protections.
Michaels said that while new cases among young Americans returning to social activities or bars and restaurants are part of the problem right now, many Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans have also been exposed at work since the beginning of the epidemic. He cited an analysis of new data from The New York Times that confirmed Black and Latino people have been impacted by the coronavirus at higher rates than whites.
"So what's going on here? You know, these are frontline workers. They're not able to stay at home like like many of us, they have to go into work every day. They work in factories on farms and grocery stores, nursing homes. Driving buses. They're making sure that we have food on our table. They're taking, taking care of our senior citizens. They need income to put food on their tables they can't afford these are low paying jobs. They can't afford to stay home," he said in an interview on ABC News Live.
Michaels said the new surges support the argument that agencies like OSHA need to require more protections.
"It's clear proof that recommendations suggestions aren't enough. We need a rule that says employers have to protect workers, they've got to get the right personal protective equipment," he told ABC News Live.
"Look, we know that they're going to have to get some help from the government because we have a shortage of masks right now. And this is another area I think the government has to step up to the plate and use all of its resources to make sure that industry is producing respirators, gloves, gowns, all the things they're needed in nursing homes and farms, in assembly line operations, every sort of workplace workers aren't getting what they need."
Under the Trump administration OSHA has said it doesn't need to issue any new rules to deal with COVID-19 cases because it can enforce it's current requirements on workplace hygiene and safety, as well as use other authorities to enforce CDC guidance. But Michaels says that approach doesn't do enough.
"The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which I ran for seven years, under the law can issue an emergency standard right now. That would tell every employer in the country there that what they need to do is they need to make a plan figure out exactly how people are being exposed their workplace. And how they're going to protect them up to the Secretary of Labor. Eugene Scalia has said OSHA has all the tools that they need. And we don't need to do anything more. But they're not really doing anything real.
CDC also wrote that "expanding interventions" could help protect workers. Many companies have taken steps like screening employees before they come to work, staggering shifts, installing plastic barriers between work stations and requiring face coverings. But some experts say more changes are needed to allow for social distancing or even installing the type of air filtration system used in hospitals.
But CDC found those steps are not universal in all facilities. While 80% of the facilities in the state data reported screening workers and 77% said they required face coverings, only 37% offered coronavirus testing.