Azar faulted workers’ ‘home and social’ conditions for meatpacking outbreaks

The move prompted Latino Democratic lawmakers to call on the administration to investigate the working conditions at meat processing plants and issue a temporary emergency safety standard.

Meat processing plant workers often cluster in neighborhoods surrounding the facility, and indeed tend to live in more crowded households that could contribute to the coronavirus’ spread, said Christine Petersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa.

Yet while the lack of widespread testing means it’s difficult to definitively say where and how those workers are being infected, she questioned the accuracy of Azar’s assertions — arguing that with much of the nation locked down, it’s likely that the plants have become the epicenter of the disease’s spread in many rural areas.

“The risk factor appears to be the packing plants and not the homes, because that’s the gathering place,” Petersen said, citing studies of cell phone data that showed severe drop-offs in daily travel over the last couple months. “I don’t think we can say it was because certain groups were socializing more.”

The CDC in a report issued on Friday similarly attributed the outbreaks at least in part to the crowded conditions inside the plants, finding that while meatpacking employees could also be at risk in their communities, the facilities had many of the same characteristics as other hard-hit workplaces, like nursing homes and prisons.

“Similarly, the crowded conditions for workers in meat and poultry processing facilities could result in high risk for SARS-CoV-S transmission,” the CDC report said. “Respiratory disease outbreaks in this type of setting demonstrate the need for heightened attention to worker safety.”