Coronavirus outbreak spread to 929 meat plant workers in five weeks

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Meat plants in the US and abroad have been especially hard-hit by coronavirus – and an outbreak at one South Dakota facility spread like wildfire to more than 900 workers in just five weeks, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report reveals. 

Dozens of meat and poultry processing plants across the US have overwhelmed by coronavirus, which is transmitted easily in confined spaces with a high density of people in them. 

The South Dakota plant’s outbreak quickly exploded from a first case diagnosed in March to 929 of its 3,635 employees by April 25. 

Two of those employees died of the disease that has ravaged the world. 

Yet, the processing plant did not begin to close down until April 12, by which point, 369 cases had already been confirmed, a fact that has the CDC urging similar facilities to take more aggressive action as soon as a first case is identified. 

An outbreak of coronavirus at a Souh Dakota meat plant exploded from one case confirmed in March to 929 employees and 210 contacts by late April, a CDC report reveals

An outbreak of coronavirus at a Souh Dakota meat plant exploded from one case confirmed in March to 929 employees and 210 contacts by late April, a CDC report reveals

The CDC report does not name the meat plant its report describes, but the details appear very similar to those of a Smithfield facility near Sioux Falls that was the biggest coronavirus hotspot in the US for a brief time in April. 

After the South Dakota Department of Health confirmed the first case of coronavirus at the plant on March 24, the meat plant did trace the person’s contacts there and tested them. 

By April 2, that process had led to the diagnosis of 19 cases of coronavirus. 

Following the identification of that considerable cluster, the facility stepped up its screening, testing anyone with coronavirus-like symptoms such as cough, fever or shortness of breath. 

Even that modestly increased effort in testing turned up a massive number of additional infections. 

As of April 11 – just two-and-a-half weeks after the first case was identified – 369 workers at the factory had coronavirus. 

Nealy 370 people at the plant had already been infected by the time it began its phased shut down on April 12, a CDC graph shows

Nealy 370 people at the plant had already been infected by the time it began its phased shut down on April 12, a CDC graph shows 

A dozen cases had been cause to test. Hundreds were cause for closing the facility down, which it began to do on April 12. 

But the closure was done in phases and much of the damage had likely been done. 

By the time the CDC finished its investigation of the factory – at the request of the state’s health department – 929 people had been infected. 

That represented more than a quarter of the meat processing plant’s total workforce. 

According to the CDC report, an average of 67 new cases were being identified a day at the peak of the outbreak at the facility. 

Unsurprisingly, the virus spread most quickly through three departments where employees could not maintain six feet of distance between them throughout their long workdays.  

The infection spread fastest in departments like 'cut' portion of the facility where employees work less than six feet apart from one another (file)

The infection spread fastest in departments like ‘cut’ portion of the facility where employees work less than six feet apart from one another (file) 

Nearly 40 employees and nine contractors had to be hospitalized. 

Two of the employees died. 

Infectious disease experts believe that people who are exposed over and over again to greater loads of coronavirus are more likely to get severely ill if they contract coronavirus. 

A meat plant, in that sense, is a perfect petri dish for infections, as it spreads to workers who return day after day to work shoulder-to-shoulder in the confines of the facility. 

In April, meat plants like the South Dakota one were considered the driving force of coronavirus hotspots across the US. 

The CDC report sheds light on how outbreaks spread beyond the walls of the factories themselves. 

Of the 2,403 contacts of the meat plant workers, 210 – about 10 percent – contracted coronavirus, too, illustrating how the single facility fueled the larger community’s outbreak. 

‘This large outbreak of COVID-19 among employees at a meat processing facility highlights the potential for rapid transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in these types of facilities,’ the CDC investigators wrote in their report. 

‘Factors that might have contributed to infection among employees at this facility include high employee density in work and common areas, prolonged close contact between employees over the course of a shift, and substantial SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the surrounding community.’   

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