Meatpacking plants across the US have become notorious hotspots for coronavirus, and the cold air inside them may be fanning the flames of the virus’s spread.
Thousands of workers at meat processing facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 20 have died.
The same cold temperatures and forceful ventilation that help to kill off bacteria that might otherwise contaminate meat may actually help preserve coronavirus and allow viral particles to fly from worker to worker.
American workers aren’t alone in these high infection rates, with similar outbreaks linked to packing plants in the UK, Canada, Ireland Spain and Brazil.
Even as outdoor temperatures warm over the summer, the viral spread at these cold facilities may be a worrying harbinger of the virus’s potential activity in the winter.
Cold temperatures coupled with close-quartered working conditions and high velocity ventilation may help coronavirus survive and spread in meatpacking plants (file)
Just when Texas officials thought that its coronavirus crisis was controlled enough to reopen the economy there, a spike in cases was seen in Moore County.
Moore is home to JBS USA, one of the nation’s largest meat processing plants.
A county of less than 22,000 people, there are 877 cases of coronavirus in Moore. Fourteen people have died.
About 3,000 people work at the JBS plant. As of a May 8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 113 workers at two meatpacking plants in Texas had contracted coronavirus.
According to the Washington Post, more than 100 people at a Colorado JBS plant have fallen ill and four have died, nearly 900 workers at a South Dakota Smithfield plant have contracted the virus, and one has died, and at least 186 Tyson Foods workers have coronavirus and to have died at an Iowa Tyson Foods plant.
In total, nearly 4,000 meat plant workers at 115 plants in 19 states across the US had been sickened as of the May CDC report.
There are several reasons for this, the CDC report suggests.
Workers in these facilities are often packed shoulder-to-shoulder during assembly line-style work.
Their work is grueling, and physically demanding, making face mask use more challenging. CDC officials saw workers wear their masks over only their mouths and frequently adjust them.
Their employers sometimes struggled to keep up with intensified cleaning and sanitation practices.
Communication may also be a key issue. One plant told the CDC that its workers spoke 40 different primary languages, undoubtedly making it more difficult for safety measures to be well-communicated to the workers.
JBS USA, a meatpacking plant in Moore County, Texas, has been the center of a large outbreak of coronavirus in the county
In addition to the densely packed conditions within their workplaces, many employees reported living in ‘crowded, multigenerational’ homes, sharing small spaces as well as transportation. So they were in constant close quarters, making it easier for coronavirus to spread.
And then there is the conditions of of the plants themselves.
Meatpacking plants are supposed to be kept below 50F, in order to keep meat from spoiling or developing bacteria, which often thrive in warmer conditions.
But coronavirus actually fares better at lower temperatures. Scientists are still working to understand the exact effects of heat and humidity on the virus and its spread, but cold seems to be its favored climate.
This spring, President Trump stated infamously and incorrectly that the summer heat and humidity could drastically slow the spread of coronavirus.
Early petri dishes did support his theory. The virus seemed less able to survive and replicate in the lab when exposed to heat and humidity.
But actually killing off the virus efficiently requires 130F of heat – a temperature nowhere in the US is likely to reach.
A Princeton University study found that the moderate benefits of warm weather would be no match for the speed of the virus’s spread in the absence of human immunity.
While heat may not kill off the virus, the cold may let it linger long in the air.
‘Low temperatures allow the virus to stay viable outside the body for longer, increasing the survival of the virus in the air,’ Sima Asadi, a chemical engineer at University of California, Davis, told Wired.
Fewer than 22,000 people live in Moore, Texas (highlighted in aqua) but 877 have coronavirus
‘That really increases the risk of infection in these plants.’
A growing body of evidence, including research that Asadi is doing, suggests that coronavirus can survive in very fine mist that sprays into the air when people simply talk, not just when they cough and sneeze.
Plus, meatpacking plants are highly ventilated, another measure put into place to improve their sterility and safety, which may inadvertently fuel the spread of coronavirus.
In order to keep pollutants from accumulating and contaminating meat in the facilities, the air in these massive buildings must be entirely replaced at least six times an hour. Most replace it far more often.
The result is a bit of a wind tunnel, which may have one of two effects upon viral spread.
One one hand, ‘in theory, those high air speeds might make the area right around an infected individual safer, by diluting the aerosol concentration. Basically, the aerosols are moving too fast to be inhaled,’ Asadi told Wired.
But on the other, the high air speeds might just supercharge the ability of the virus, in aerosols exhaled by people, making six feet of social distance easy for viral particles to span.
Together, these environmental factors, coupled with social ones like language barriers and cramped living quarters may make for a perfect storm for viral spread at these facilities, which are considered essential businesses and remained open throughout the pandemic (barring those that closed down in the midst of their own outbreaks).
Already, public health officials are concerned that winter could come with reinvigorated outbreaks of coronavirus.
The overlap of the flu season could mean people catch both respiratory viruses.
And if SARS-CoV-2 does in fact fare better in the cold, it could mean the winter air will be teeming with more virus.
Researchers at Texas A&M are currently trying to study the behavior of the virus in meatpacking plants, both to create better safety measures in them and to try to predict how the virus may behave this winter.