More than 900 workers at a single meatpacking plant in South Dakota were infected with the coronavirus over the course of just five weeks, showing how quickly it can rip through an essential workforce toiling away in close quarters.
Those numbers come from a report released Thursday examining the Smithfield pork facility in Sioux Falls, which was home to one of the worst COVID-19 clusters in the country this spring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state officials studied the outbreak to learn how it got so out of control.
The CDC report shows the outbreak was somewhat worse than previously believed. State officials had earlier put the total number of infections at 853, according to the Argus Leader. The actual number was 929, which translates into one of every four workers at the 3,635-person plant.
At the peak of the outbreak, the workforce was averaging 67 new cases a day. Two workers eventually died. In addition to the cases among employees, at least 210 contacts of workers contracted the virus. In total, 39 workers and nine contacts ended up hospitalized.
The CDC did not openly criticize Smithfield for its handling of the crisis and did not name the company in its report. But the findings suggest the pork producer was slow to deal with the situation and didn’t put many controls in place until it was too late.
The researchers concluded that what happened at the Sioux Falls plant shows how the coronavirus “can spread rapidly in meat processing facilities because of the close proximity of workstations and prolonged contact between employees.” Employers need to have “a robust mitigation program ... consistent with published guidelines” in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield executive vice president, said in a statement that the company’s coronavirus response has “focused exclusively” on keeping employees safe and maintaining the food supply. She said the company took “aggressive action” that preceded the guidance on meatpacking safety released by the federal government in late April.
Lombardo also said so many cases were detected at the plant because of a “significantly disproportionate testing rate.” The CDC report acknowledged that workers at the Sioux Falls facility were tested at a higher rate than the community at large.
“Smithfield did not begin screening employees for fever and installing barriers inside the plant until April 3. By April 4, there were more than 240 cases at the plant.”
Nationally, the coronavirus has hit the largely immigrant workforces inside meat and poultry plants particularly hard. So far, at least 65 workers have died and more than 14,000 have been infected or exposed to the virus, according to estimates from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents workers at many plants.
Workers at meatpacking plants across the country have reported laboring practically shoulder to shoulder even during the pandemic. The CDC found that the “attack rate” ― the proportion of people in a given population infected with the virus ― was highest in departments where people could not work at least six feet apart.
Not surprisingly, hourly workers were nearly twice as likely to be infected as salaried workers inside the Smithfield plant. The latter, researchers wrote, “typically had workstations that could be adjusted to maintain distancing and did not work in close proximity to other employees on the production line.”
Showing just how rapidly the outbreak escalated, researchers found that the attack rate throughout the facility increased fivefold each week during the first three weeks. After Smithfield temporarily shuttered the plant, the rate of new infections dropped significantly among workers, to roughly 10 per day within a week.
The study’s authors said that the virus likely spread in non-work areas of the plant as well, like locker and break rooms, and that workers may also have transmitted it to one another while carpooling or living together. They cautioned that whether a given worker contracted the virus inside the plant or out in the community could not be known. The Rapid City Journal reported that the Smithfield plant accounted for about 41% of coronavirus cases within the community during that time.
The first known worker to get sick developed symptoms on March 16. By March 28, around two dozen other workers showed signs of the coronavirus. Smithfield did not begin screening employees for fever and installing barriers inside the plant until April 3. By April 4, there were more than 240 cases in 23 different departments at the plant.
The CDC changed its guidance to recommend people wear a mask in public on April 3, which is the same day Smithfield first made them optional at the plant, according to the report. But the company did not make masks mandatory until April 13, weeks after the outbreak first emerged.
By then, the facility was already beginning a phased closure that would stop production for several weeks.
It was not until April 26 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in conjunction with the CDC, released guidance for meatpacking plants on how to contain the virus. They suggested protocols like installing barriers, staggering break times and encouraging face coverings. The guidance was not enforceable by law.
Smithfield reopened the Sioux Falls plant on May 7.