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A worker wears a mask as he walks behind a fence at a meat processing plant in Toppenish, Wash., on May 7, 2020.Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

The coronavirus outbreak took a heavy toll on workers at U.S. meat and poultry processing facilities, with more than 17,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 100 deaths in April and May, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released on Tuesday.

In many rural parts of the country, meatpacking plants have been the main source of local outbreaks as employees are forced to work long hours, indoors and in close proximity to each other.

The CDC report was based on surveillance data from health departments in 23 states through May 31 for all meat and poultry facilities affected by the coronavirus. It compiled 16,233 confirmed cases among the workers, with 86 related deaths.

Among cases in states where demographic details were available, 87 per cent occurred among racial and ethnic minority workers.

Twelve per cent of the reported cases were asymptomatic or presymptomatic, CDC said. But not all facilities performed widespread coronavirus testing, so there may have been many more cases that went unreported, according to the study.

Combined with an earlier CDC assessment of meat processing plant workers through April 27, the totals were 17,358 COVID-19 cases and 91 deaths through the end of May.

Most plants have implemented safety measures including screening workers for symptoms, supplying them with masks and hand sanitizer, and making sure tools are disinfected, the report said.

Targeted, workplace-specific prevention strategies are critical to reduce COVID-19 health disparities among vulnerable populations, said the CDC researchers said.

“Lessons learned from investigating outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing facilities could inform investigations in other food production and agriculture workplaces,” the study authors said.

Hundreds of scientists say there is evidence that the coronavirus in smaller particles in the air can infect people and are calling for the World Health Organization to revise recommendations, the New York Times has reported.


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