- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
More than a year after the first COVID-19 outbreak in an Idaho meatpacking plant, the Idaho Statesman is concluding its tracking of coronavirus outbreaks in Idaho agribusinesses.
Since May 2020, the Idaho Statesman has identified approximately 1,500 coronavirus cases and at least four deaths linked to outbreaks in more than 40 agribusinesses across Idaho. Given that Idaho has recorded more than 190,000 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and how easily the coronavirus was transmitted in food processing and meatpacking plants across the U.S., this is likely an undercount.
Data about facility and business outbreaks included in the Statesman’s online database and map reflect the cumulative positive and probable cases at each facility since March, as provided and verified by each facility’s regional health district. Sometimes, the case numbers provided by the company were higher than those provided by the health district, because workers at the facility live in a different district. In that case, the map used the company’s count. At some locations, all employees have recovered, while others may still have had sick employees, or active cases at the time of the last data provided to the Statesman in May 2021.
Several factors contribute to undercount in COVID-19 cases
Idaho’s health districts and state health department did not proactively release information about outbreaks or clusters of coronavirus cases among employees of food processing facilities, meatpacking plants or farms. Instead, the Idaho Statesman collected this information via regular public record requests made to Idaho health districts. Inquiries about specific facilities were often prompted by anonymous tips in English and Spanish. Outbreaks at these facilities contributed to the virus’s spread through immigrant and Latino communities in Idaho, which struggled with language barriers. Idaho’s demographic data show Latinos are more likely to contract COVID-19 than the rest of the state’s residents.
Given these challenges, Melissa Perry, a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University who studies the meat processing industry, said data coming out of struggling facilities and health districts would “invariably” be underreported.
“I would say that the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges to the country’s ability to track an airborne infectious disease such as COVID-19, and that when it came to meatpacking facilities, they did not have the capability — nor did rural health departments have the capability — to accurately track every case,” Perry said. “We were sorely under-resourced and entirely ill-prepared to conduct the kind of thorough surveillance activities that would be necessary to capture each case, and also to do it in a timely way that could lead to timely prevention.”
Brianna Bodily, the spokesperson for the South Central Public Health District based in Twin Falls, raised another concern. She said many people contacted by health district staff throughout the pandemic were reluctant to share employment information of any kind, whether because of a lack of trust or because they feared being forced to remain home and lose pay.
“When you’re looking at some of these industries, many of those employees really rely on that income and having to go without work can be very devastating to the families,” Bodily said. “So, looking at a future where they’re not able to work — especially if their employers are unable to offer some sort of sick time or leave — it can be extremely concerning for them.”
Not all of Idaho’s health districts tracked agribusiness outbreaks in the same way, and many of those efforts were hampered or stalled during spikes in case counts that made it difficult for contact tracers and investigators to keep up.
The South Central health district, which considered an outbreak to be five cases connected by epidemiological evidence within a two-week time frame, was among several Idaho agencies that struggled to keep up with an unrelenting coronavirus surge during the fall of 2020. District contact tracers were unable to immediately contact thousands of cases in the region during November. Although they were eventually able to catch up after cases slowed again, Bodily said a few cases might have flown under the radar.
What about future COVID-19 outbreaks?
Although coronavirus case counts continue to drop in Idaho, just under 50% of Idaho adults are vaccinated. That employees at food and meat processing plants often work in close quarters and in conditions that make it easier for the coronavirus to spread rapidly means there may be more outbreaks at Idaho agribusinesses in the future. Many employers in Idaho’s agriculture sector rushed to get large numbers of employees vaccinated as soon as vaccines were available in their area, and Bodily said the health district is still working with many to prevent further outbreaks, like keeping safety precautions and mask rules in place.
“We might still have an outbreak, definitely,” Bodily said. “We don’t rule that out. You know, we plan for the worst and hope for the best. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we keep enough epidemiologists on staff so we can respond to any kind of surge, and we still have all of our informational materials to provide to our facilities. But we do have a slight limitation in that. Because disease spreads through a community because of the actions of a community, it requires the actions of a community to stop that disease.”
Perry said greater transparency from historically tight-lipped companies like those in the meatpacking industry will be necessary to prevent further outbreaks, as well as significant industry investment in making the COVID-19 vaccine attractive and available to their employees.
“I think continued vigilance of infectious disease control is a value that I think meatpacking companies really need to take seriously,” Perry said.