Latino farm and meat processing workers have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released on Monday.
The study, published as part of the CDC's January 2021 issue of the "Emerging Infectious Diseases", examined the number of COVID-19 cases in US food processing, food manufacturing and agriculture workplaces from March 1–May 31, 2020.
The CDC compared data for food manufacturing and agriculture workers in 30 states, with 742 companies reporting a total of 8,978 cases and 55 deaths.
According to researchers, Hispanic and Latino employees make up approximately 37% of the workforce of the manufacturing and agriculture companies they polled. The group appears to have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and accounts for 73% of reported cases. In comparison, non-Hispanic Black people, who represent 5.9% of the workforce, account for 6.3% of reported cases. Those of Asian or Pacific Islander descent account for 4.1% of cases and represent 3.5% of the workforce.
After analyzing the data, researchers said their results suggest that "Hispanic or Latino, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander workers in these workplaces might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19."
"Our study supports findings from prior reports that part of the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 among some racial and ethnic minority groups is likely related to occupational risk," the study reads.
The study notes that several factors could have influenced the number of cases detected and reported, including the following: only 36 states submitted data, testing strategies varied by workplace and some workers might have been hesitant to report their illness.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19 in meat processing plants has proven difficult for most companies during the pandemic, and many have had to temporarily shut down operations over the last several months. Tyson Foods, one of the leading names in food manufacturing, had to temporarily shut down a beef processing plant in Nebraska in April after an influx of coronavirus cases in the area.
Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health told TODAY Food he's not surprised that meat processing facilities have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 outbreaks.
"These high density work spaces often require fairly large numbers of workers to be occupied side-by-side and directly opposite one another indoors for long periods of time. WHO (World Health Organization) notes that close contact in indoor spaces that are crowded, confined and poorly ventilated presents the highest risk for transmission, especially if it is prolonged," he said, adding that physical distancing and barriers may only be possible in some parts of the building.
Kachur also noted that meat processing employees often work in extra cold facilities that can favor the survival of COVID-19 and other viruses. An employee's exposure level at home or in their neighborhood can also play a factor.
"Workers come and go from the workplace on a daily basis. If they are living in communities with widespread transmission, or households with other persons who become infected, it is likely that they will bring the virus to work and potentially infect others, even if they are not ill," he said. "Black and Latinx workers may live in communities already facing a higher risk of exposure and are more prone to some of the factors that can increase their risk of becoming infected or seriously ill."
As part of the CDC study, researchers called for "comprehensive testing strategies, coupled with contact tracing and symptom screening, for high-density critical infrastructure workplaces." The CDC also stresses prevention efforts such as physical distancing, proper sanitation and personal protective equipment.