In Texas, the fastest growing Covid-19 outbreak isn’t in Dallas or Houston or San Antonio, the state’s most densely packed metro areas. It’s hundreds of miles to the north, in the dusty, windswept flatlands of Moore County, population 20,000. According to data reported Monday by the state health department, 19 out of 1,000 residents in Moore County have so far tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19—10 times higher than the infection rates in the state’s largest cities.
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So what’s in Moore County that’s making people so sick? One of the nation’s largest beef processing facilities, where huge armies of employees slice, shave, and clean up to 5,000 cattle carcasses a day. Last month, Texas health officials launched an investigation into a cluster of Covid-19 cases linked to the massive meatpacking plant, which is operated by JBS USA, a subsidiary of the largest meat processing company in the world, based in São Paulo, Brazil.
But Moore County isn’t an outlier. In recent weeks, beef, pork, and poultry processing plants across the US have emerged as dangerous new hot spots for the deadly respiratory disease, which can also cause damage to the heart, kidneys, and brain. Dozens of plants have been forced to temporarily halt operations amid skyrocketing numbers of cases and fatalities. According to a report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 5,000 plant workers in 19 states had tested positive for the virus as of April 27. In Iowa and South Dakota, close to a fifth of the workforce in the states’ largest slaughterhouses have fallen ill.
And it’s not just the US. Large Covid-19 clusters have also appeared in meatpacking plants around the world, including Canada, Spain, Ireland, Brazil, and Australia. “One, two, or three meatpacking plants—fine, you might expect that. But these outbreaks are clearly a worldwide phenomenon,” says Nicholas Christakis, head of the Human Nature Lab at Yale where he studies how contagions travel through social networks. “To me, that’s evidence that there’s something distinctive about meatpacking that’s adding to people’s risks of catching Covid-19.”
So what is it about these places that makes them such dangerous incubators for the novel coronavirus? It’s a question that urgently needs answers, especially now that concerns over food shortages and an order given on April 28 by President Donald Trump classifying meat processors as critical infrastructure are already forcing workers back to the production line. Like most aspects of the pandemic, this one, too, is complicated by a dearth of data. Figuring out how exactly the disease is spreading between workers and which slaughterhouse practices are to blame is going to take time and lots of epidemiological legwork. But there are some clues.
According to the CDC’s latest report, the chief risks to meatpackers come from being in prolonged close proximity to other workers. A thousand people might work a single eight-hour shift, standing shoulder to shoulder as carcasses whiz by on hooks or conveyor belts. Often, workers get only a second or two to complete their task before the next hunk of meat arrives. The frenzied pace and grueling physical demands of breaking down so many dead animals can make people breathe hard and have difficulty keeping masks properly positioned on their faces. To allow for social distancing, the agency recommended that meat processors slow down production lines to require fewer workers, and that they stagger shifts to limit the number of employees in a facility at one time.
According to company spokesperson Nikki Richardson, JBS USA has implemented these measures at all of its facilities. Other efforts outlined in an email Richardson sent WIRED include providing surgical masks at the start of each shift, which are now mandatory for all workers; fever screening all employees using hands-free thermometers and thermal imaging before they can enter a facility; and hiring dedicated staff for additional cleanings. A representative from the North American Meat Institute, a trade group for US meat processors, wrote in an email that their members are all taking similar precautions and following guidelines from the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as much as possible.
Those interventions should help, though not all people with Covid-19 get fevers. Daily nose swabs to detect the live virus inside people’s bodies would be better, but hard to achieve as long as diagnostic testing is still limited in the US. When one pork processing plant in Missouri began working with the state health department to test its workforce, more than 370 employees tested positive. All of them were asymptomatic.
And meat processing plants have other unique characteristics that are trickier to modify, like the very cold temperatures and aggressive ventilation systems required to prevent meat from spoiling or getting contaminated with pathogens that cause foodborne illness. These features could also be contributing to the high rates of infection among slaughterhouse workers, says Sima Asadi, a chemical engineer at UC Davis. “Low temperatures allow the virus to stay viable outside the body for longer, increasing the survival of the virus in the air,” she says. “That really increases the risk of infection in these plants.”
Asadi’s research group, led by Bill Ristenpart, has spent the better part of the last decade building a model to understand how things like temperature, humidity, and other factors influence how respiratory viruses transmit through the air. There’s been much controversy over whether or not SARS-CoV-2 is actually “airborne”—meaning that it can remain aloft on respiratory particles smaller than 5 microns, as the measles virus does. Asadi and Ristenpart are among a growing number of researchers who suspect the coronavirus can in fact be harbored in these very fine particles, termed “aerosols,” as they wrote in a recent editorial in Aerosol Science and Technology. This would mean the coronavirus could be spread not just by an uncovered cough or sneeze but also just by regular breathing and talking. It would also complicate the current standard 6-foot rule for social distancing that the CDC and OSHA have recommended meat processors implement for their workers.
“We are still not sure if 6 feet is really enough or not,” says Asadi. The now well-known distance might not be enough to prevent transmission. Assuming no air movement at all, larger, heavier droplets are likely to travel no farther than 6 feet before falling to the ground, so anyone standing outside that diameter would avoid contact with them. Aerosols generated by breathing and talking would eventually reach beyond 6 feet via diffusion after about an hour. However, if you start to add even the slightest breeze, that protection swiftly evaporates. Air moving at just 1 centimeter per second would deliver those aerosols to a person 6 feet away in a few minutes, according to Asadi’s calculations.
In meatpacking plants, where air speeds typically exceed 100 times that, infectious droplets and aerosols would get pushed much farther much faster. But how these turbulent conditions might affect disease transmission is harder to predict. “In theory, those high air speeds might make the area right around an infected individual safer, by diluting the aerosol concentration. Basically, the aerosols are moving too fast to be inhaled,” says Asadi. Everywhere else, though, the risk of infection is likely to increase, because the increased air speed may transport the aerosols farther, where they can reach additional susceptible people. “It’s an easy question to ask, but a really complicated one to answer,” she continues.
But researchers at Texas A&M University are planning to try. Nearly 20 years ago, in the wake of the anthrax attacks that followed September 11, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security reached out to the university’s Aerosol Technology Laboratory about building a portable bioaerosol collector that could gather large volumes of airborne particles containing live bacteria and viruses. For the last decade, the lab’s current director, Maria King, has been using these devices, called “wetted walled cyclones,” to study potential viral, bacterial, and fungal outbreaks. In 2013 and 2014, she worked with researchers at Ohio State to collect samples from 25 state fairs around the US to assess how swine flu was spreading through prize pig barns. More recently, her research team has brought the devices inside a handful of beef processing plants to look for patterns in how foodborne pathogens move inside such facilities.
Combining air sampling data with detailed blueprints of these slaughterhouses’ layouts and ventilation systems, King’s team constructed computational airflow models that allowed them to trace the movements of particles through the buildings. They found that small design differences—a fan here, a column there—could have huge effects on whether aerosols containing harmful bacterial particles quickly exited the building or swirled for hours, building up into densely concentrated contagion clouds and settling onto surfaces. While most of the pathogens King’s group found in their wetted walled cyclones had come from the cows’ hides and were aerosolized from the process of chopping up beef carcasses, they did notice that workers also shed bacteria associated with the normal human skin and lung microbiome. These increased the overall bioaerosol concentrations inside the facilities.
Though definitive experiments have yet to be conducted, King assumes that any SARS-CoV-2 particles breathed or coughed into the air inside a meat processing plant would behave similarly. “We anticipate the virus, which is much smaller than bacteria, would also become entrained in the airflow and get transported to other areas of the facility, including landing on surfaces,” says King. “But we have to go in and test to know for sure. It’s possible that humidity inside these plants could affect how the virus travels as well as many other factors.”
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Her research group has field testing scheduled for later this summer inside several beef processing plants in the US, as part of an ongoing collaboration with industry partners. (King declined to disclose which ones, citing nondisclosure research agreements.) She says the goal of these studies is to help meat processors arrive at a much more detailed accounting of the unique risks for Covid-19 infection their workers are facing.
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But the physical conditions inside these plants probably aren’t the whole story. Social and economic factors likely play a role, too. Meat processing is an exhausting, dangerous, labor-intensive job done primarily by underpaid, undocumented workers and recent immigrants to the US. Out of necessity, many of them live in multigenerational homes or other crowded housing environments. They may also ride company-operated busses for an hour or more each day to and from the plants—usually located in very rural areas—which again puts them in prolonged close contact with other people. Other types of farmworkers, including those who pick fruits and vegetables, face similar challenges when it comes to social distancing at home, in the fields, and in between.
If they do become sick, the workers often lack access to testing and health care, which means they might accidentally spread the disease or continue clocking in until their symptoms become so bad they can’t work. Many don’t have phones or are fearful of providing phone numbers that might aid teams of contact tracers investigating an infection. Their undocumented status makes them less likely to seek medical care if they do get sick, particularly under the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies. All of these factors—on top of the realities of working in a giant refrigerator slick with water and blood and packed with human and animal bodies—make meat processing workers a particularly vulnerable population where the coronavirus has now found a foothold.
This isn’t surprising to Ingrid Gould Ellen, who directs the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University. In a recent analysis of neighborhood demographic data, Covid-19 case reports from the department of health, and ridership data from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, her research team discovered that in New York City the disease spread quickest through neighborhoods where people lived in overcrowded homes and couldn’t telecommute to their jobs. “Population density never seems to matter,” says Gould Ellen. “The higher-density neighborhoods were not the ones hit most by this pandemic. What does seem to be a significant issue is crowding.” In other words, it’s not the density of housing that matters—it’s the number of people living together in those homes.
While there’s still a lot more to learn about the specific transmission dynamics of local outbreaks, she says the same principles should apply to non-urban areas. Meat processing plants are just one example: Prisons, homeless shelters, long-term care facilities, and cruise ships all follow a similar pattern. If you stick a bunch of people in close quarters for long periods of time, the virus will inevitably spread.
Since the outbreaks began, JBS USA has begun offering a $600 bonus and $4 per hour wage increase to its workers. Those who are absent for health reasons, including testing positive for Covid-19 or being exposed to someone who has, are being paid—either regular wages or short-term disability—while not working, according to Richardson, the company spokesperson. “No one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” Richardson wrote. “JBS USA will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate.”
As JBS USA and other big meat processors struggle to keep their plants running, the US food supply isn’t going to collapse, says Jayson Lusk, a food and agricultural economist at Purdue University. But there are going to be some disruptions that consumers will feel almost immediately. In the last week, wholesale pork prices have spiked sharply, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. Wholesale beef prices are now the highest they’ve been in two decades. “Grocery stores will probably dampen that some, so consumers won’t be exposed to that full cost,” says Lusk. “But it’s inevitable that in the coming days we’ll all be seeing higher meat prices in the store.”
In some parts of the country it’s already happening. This week, nearly one-fifth of Wendy’s restaurants ran out of burgers, The New York Times reported. Kroger and Costco are limiting their shoppers’ purchase of fresh beef, poultry, and pork. In the near term, such shortages are likely to be sporadic and limited to certain geographic regions, at least for pork, says Lusk. That’s because going into the Covid-19 crisis, pork producers were ramping up production in anticipation of selling huge quantities to China, where African swine fever wiped out half the country’s hog herd in 2019. As a result, the big US pork producers have 10 days’ worth of meat in cold storage that they can release when and where it’s needed.
That won’t last forever, though. With plants shut down or operating at reduced capacity, pig farmers are already having to euthanize animals—as many as 10,000 a day in Minnesota alone, according to The Star Tribune. There’s less economic pressure regarding beef cattle, because ranchers can continue feeding them on pasture at minimal additional costs. Pork production has less slack in the system. Feeding animals in finishing barns is expensive, and if they get too big, slaughterhouses won’t take them because they’ll overwhelm processing equipment. “You start getting backlogs of piglets in nurseries, then in farrowing houses, and finishing barns,” says Lusk. “If you can’t get market hogs out the door, something has to give.” With so much uncertainty, farmers are less likely to keep young animals moving through the system and to continue breeding sows. A half year from now, there are going to be far fewer pigs in the US than this time last year.
“Because of the biological lag inherent in agriculture, this is really going to have longer-term consequences,” says Lusk. Farmers are trying to find other, smaller slaughterhouses for their animals, but there just aren’t that many. Eighty percent of the US’ meat processing is performed by just four large companies. Though some demand has fallen off as restaurants and schools have been forced to close, the bigger problem is a huge supply of animals with nowhere to go. “The real bottleneck here is the packing plants,” says Lusk.
Of course, if the new coronavirus forced people to stop eating so much meat there would be some obvious upsides. Critics have long argued that industrial animal agriculture is a cruel business that’s ruining the planet and fueling the rise of superbugs. The rise of Covid-19 shows just how vulnerable these systems—and the people who work inside them—are to other kinds of existential threats too.
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