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CDC report examines COVID-19 spread at South Dakota meat processing facility

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The cut, conversion (refining initial cuts of meat into finished fresh meat products), and harvest departments, in which many employees tended to work less than six feet apart on the production line, had the highest infection rates.

A CDC report on a COVID-19 outbreak at a meat processing plant in South Dakota found that from March 16 through April 25, 2020, 25.6 percent (929) of the employees and 8.7 percent (210) of their contacts were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Two employees died. The CDC found that the highest attack rates occurred among employees who worked less than six feet from one another on the production line.

The report underscores some of the things we’ve learned about protecting against workplace spread of the coronavirus—social distancing and masks are critical, for example. While the findings reflect an outbreak at a meat packing facility, they offer insight for other types of employers as well.

Hospitalization. Among employees with COVID-19, 4.2 percent (39) were hospitalized, with a median age of 60 years old in a range of 28–73 years. As of June 14, 11 hospitalized patients had been discharged after a median length of stay at 6.5 days, with a range of 1–69 days. Nine (4.3 percent) contacts who developed COVID-19 were hospitalized, with a median age of 64 years old in a range of 23–79 years. Contacts were hospitalized for a median of 10 days, with a range of 1-15 days.

Takeaways. The CDC said that this large outbreak of COVID-19 among employees at a meat processing facility highlights the potential for rapid transmission of COVID-19 in these types of facilities. Factors that might have contributed to infection among employees at the facility include:

  • High employee density in work and common areas;
  • Prolonged close contact between employees over the course of a shift; and
  • Substantial COVID-19 transmission in the surrounding community.

Highest and lowest attack rates. The federal agency noted that the cut, conversion (refining initial cuts of meat into finished fresh meat products), and harvest department-groups, in which many employees tended to work less than six feet from one another on the production line, experienced the highest attack rates. Salaried employees, who typically had workstations that could be adjusted to maintain distancing and did not work in close proximity to other employees on the production line, had a lower attack rate than did non-salaried employees.

“These differences highlight the importance of engineering controls (e.g., physical barriers) and administrative controls (e.g., cohorting employees) in mitigating the risk for SARS-CoV-2 transmission in meat processing facilities,” the report states. “Consistent and correct use of masks can also prevent presymptomatic or asymptomatic employees with SARS-CoV-2 infection from transmitting the virus to others.”

Rapid increase in spread. While cases were confined to three departments during the first week of the outbreak, the number of affected departments increased rapidly, according to the report. Contact between employees in common areas, such as cafeterias, locker rooms, and equipment-dispensing locations, might have facilitated spread among employees in different departments. “Visual cues to maintain physical distancing and staggered shifts and break times might reduce risk for transmission among employees in these areas,” the report observed. As to transmission among employees who work in different departments, the report noted that this may have also occurred outside the facility, pointing to carpooling, cohabitating, and socializing outside work.

Notably, employees working the first, second, and third shifts experienced similar attack rates, even though employee density in the facility is lowest during the third shift, and sanitizing duties entail physical distancing and the use of personal protective equipment. The report suggests that transmission among third shift employees might have occurred in common areas or outside the facility.

What can employers do? The report indicates several things that employers should consider:

  • Prioritize implementation of control measures consistent with published guidelines to mitigate the risk for occupational COVID-19 transmission;
  • Implement a robust mitigation program including engineering (e.g., modification of workstations to separate workers) and administrative (e.g., promoting social distancing when possible) controls, because no single control measure likely will eliminate transmission (emphasis added);
  • Consistent and correct use of masks can prevent employees with COVID-19 from infecting others; and
  • Once a case is identified, prompt isolation of the infected employee and identification of contacts is necessary to reduce spread within the facility and the community.

Where widespread transmission continues despite these measures, temporary facility closure might reduce transmission among employees and their contacts, the report suggests.