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Thursday, May 07, 2020

Azar faulted workers' 'home and social' conditions for meatpacking outbreaks

Azar faulted workers' 'home and social' conditions for meatpacking outbreaks
by Adam Cancryn & Laura Barron-Lopez

The country’s top health official downplayed concerns over the public health conditions inside meatpacking plants, suggesting on a call with lawmakers that workers were more likely to catch coronavirus based on their social interactions and group living situations, three participants said.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar told a bipartisan group that he believed infected employees were bringing the virus into processing plants where a rash of cases have killed at least 20 workers and forced nearly two-dozen plants to close, according to three people on the April 28 call.
Those infections, he said, were linked more to the "home and social" aspects of workers' lives rather than the conditions inside the facilities, alarming some on the call who interpreted his remarks as faulting workers for the outbreaks, the people said.
"He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem," said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), who told POLITICO that Azar’s comments left her deeply concerned about the administration’s priorities in fighting the pandemic. "Their theory of the case is that they are not becoming infected in the meat processing plant, they're becoming infected because of the way they live in their home."
Azar's remarks came during a discussion with Republican and Democratic lawmakers about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on rural health — a conversation that was largely dominated by worries about the state of rural hospitals.
But the discussion veered onto the subject of meatpacking plant conditions after Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) voiced concerns about plant closures and asked about the availability of coronavirus testing for the facilities.
Azar emphasized the need to keep the plants open, according to the three people on the call. He also theorized that workers were largely not becoming infected at the meatpacking plants, and were instead contracting the coronavirus from their communities.
Azar noted in particular that many meatpacking workers live in congregate housing, allowing that more testing at facilities would help but that the bigger issue was employees' home environments. One possible solution was to send more law enforcement to those communities to better enforce social distancing rules, he added, according to two of the lawmakers on the call.

"Law enforcement is not going to solve the problem," Kuster said. "It was so far off base."
An HHS spokesperson declined to offer any evidence supporting Azar’s assertions and said the department doesn’t comment on specifics of conversations with members of Congress, but contended that “this is an inaccurate representation of Secretary’s Azar’s comments during the discussion.”
A spokesperson for Roberts did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At least 6,500 meatpacking plant employees have contracted Covid-19 so far, raising concerns about the conditions for a mostly low-income workforce that's made up predominantly of racial minorities and immigrants. Some 44 percent of meatpackers are Latino and 25 percent are African American, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The League of United Latin American Citizens estimates 80 percent of those working in meat processing plants are undocumented or refugees.
The outbreaks have driven a spike in cases across rural areas in the Midwest and in Georgia, where state officials say the close quarters inside the plants — where hundreds of employees often work elbow-to-elbow — have exacerbated the virus' spread.
That's also contributed to a larger nationwide trend of the coronavirus disproportionately affecting people of color. Generations of health disparities contributing to chronic conditions, low rates of insurance coverage and exposure to occupational hazards have made the pandemic worse for black and Latino Americans, public health experts say, who represent a far greater percentage of hospitalizations and deaths compared to their share of the population.
On Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Health confirmed outbreaks in four separate plants — including a Tyson Foods factory where 58 percent of workers had tested positive for Covid-19.
Still, federal officials have backed keeping meat-processing plants open amid worries about disrupting the national food chain. President Donald Trump last week deemed the facilities essential infrastructure, warning in an order that mass closures would "threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain."

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."

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