Friday, June 19, 2020

Emails from meatpackers show how quickly rural public-health agencies were overwhelmed by covid-19

Thousands of emails and other documents obtained by ProPublica show how patchwork regulations and underfunded public-health agencies in rural areas often left local and state governments unequipped to handle covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

"The candid, often emotional messages provide a real-time reckoning of how the companies responsible for a critical part of the food supply chain were hazardously unprepared and how a system that relied on tiny local public health agencies was quickly overwhelmed by the consequences," Michael Grabell, Claire Perlman and Bernice Yeung report for ProPublica. "The coronavirus response was complicated by a lack of clarity over which agency had the authority to order meatpacking plants to make changes or shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could only offer guidance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture dealt with animals and food. The Labor Department had few rules that applied to a virus. And the power of local and state health officials varied from state to state."

Plans created by meatpackers and government officials to deal with infectious diseases mostly focused on animals instead of the workers, most of whom are immigrants, refugees and African Americans. "The failure to have a coordinated plan for workers left small, often rural communities vulnerable. More than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants," ProPublica reports. "Though many haven’t suffered severe symptoms, at least 87 workers have died. More than 25 of the dead worked for Tyson," one of the nation's largest poultry processors. 

Tyson formed a coronavirus task force in January to assess the risk to its plants, but emails and other records show that social distancing protocols to protect workers weren't implemented until after outbreaks began occurring, and that Tyson and other companies seemingly spent more energy in the early weeks urging state and local officials to allow them to keep their plants open. A little less than half of Tyson's major plants have reported outbreaks, and many have been forced to close temporarily, ProPublica reports.

However, Tyson may have attempted to delay notifying some public health officials about outbreaks. After the county health department began seeing a spike in positive cases at the Wilkesboro, N.C. plant, Tyson hired a private company to take over testing, then turned over very few results until threatened with legal action, ProPublica reports.

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