As COVID-19 hit Georgia meatpacking counties, officials and industry shifted blame
Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder assisted with this article.
Hall County in north central Georgia is home to Gainesville, a town of about 43,000 where a large chicken-topped monument in its center declares it the "Poultry Capital of the World." There are more than a dozen meat processing plants in Hall County, and several others in surrounding counties.
But Hall County is also home to one of the most concentrated COVID-19 outbreaks in Georgia. Since March, there have been over 7,000 cases in the county — an infection rate of 3,521 per 100,000 residents, roughly 40% higher than rates for the five counties that make up the Atlanta metropolitan area. This is remarkable, since more dense urban areas typically have the highest infection rates. Hall County's experience is an extreme example of a nationwide pattern of high rates of COVID-19 in many counties with meatpacking plants.
"We have seen a lot of deaths in our community," said Vanesa Sarazua, the founder of Gainesville's Hispanic Alliance, in a recent phone interview. "Every week we see, of the people we come into contact with, three to five people that have died because of COVID or [whose deaths] are COVID-related somehow." Since the pandemic began, Sarazua has partnered with other community groups to distribute masks, conduct food drives, and provide essential information to Hall County's large Spanish-speaking community, many of whom came to the area to work in the plants.
Dr. Jodie Guest, an Emory University epidemiologist who led a team doing COVID-19 testing in Hall County, found that Latinx people were testing positive at more than twice the rate of white people. Statewide, Latinx people account for one-third of Georgia's positive cases for which ethnicity is recorded, but represent only 9% of the state population. The poultry industry, which employs many Spanish speakers in the area, is the common factor: Guest confirmed in an email that the team found that one-quarter of the 450 meatpacking workers it tested for the virus in Hall County were positive as of late June. In April, when the team held its first testing events, up to one-half were positive.
That was when Fieldale Farms, which has two processing plants in Hall County, started seeing COVID-19 outbreaks in its facilities. In total, 200 workers tested positive out of the company's 5,000 employees, who are spread across six north Georgia counties, a company executive told the Associated Press in May.
Georgia's first large outbreaks, in early April, took place in its rural southwest counties. The outbreaks mainly affected Black people, who are the majority of poultry workers in that region.
In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meat processing plants "critical infrastructure," prohibiting state and local officials from ordering them closed over health concerns. A month earlier, Tyson Foods had sent a proposal signed by food industry groups to Trump seeking this critical status, which the Georgia Poultry Federation forwarded to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on March 20, according to documents obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation via public records request.
Nationwide, there have been outbreaks at nearly 500 meat processing plants, with more than 41,000 workers infected, according to numbers compiled by the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN). At least 200 workers have died.
Yet Georgia, the top poultry producing state in the country, has only rarely released data on COVID-19 cases in the state's meat processing plants. Although the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) was a partner in the Emory testing events, their spokespeople have echoed government officials in praising the industry for undertaking safety measures, and pointing to community transmission as the main cause of spread.
But if the numbers the Emory team found in Hall County — a quarter of tested workers sick as of early July — are indicative of the rate in other meatpacking counties, it suggests that safety measures adopted by the plants such as temperature checks, mandatory masks, and separated work stations have fallen short. To fill in the gaps on the role of meat processing in spreading the virus, Facing South analyzed COVID-19 infection rates in Georgia counties where meatpacking is a predominant industry.
Tracking COVID-19's spread
Our analysis looks at clusters of high infection rates associated with meat processing plants over the course of the pandemic. Georgia's early reopening and high case load complicates attempts to track the virus's spread in workplaces after mid-June, especially in population-dense areas. For that reason, our analysis focuses heavily on rural counties with at least one meatpacking plant employing 100 or more workers. We also include Dougherty County, which has no plant within its borders but is home to thousands of meatpacking workers who commute across county lines to work, and Hall County — which, though not classified as rural, has 13 plants employing 6,780 workers.
Figure 1 is an interactive map of Georgia with three clusters of counties with meat processing plants and consistently high infection rates in yellow; one is around Hall County, and two are in the rural southern part of the state. Other counties with meat processing plants are green. Scrolling over them shows detail on who owns the plants and how many people work in them.
By the end of May, several weeks after most plants reported adopting pandemic-related safety measures, the Georgia DPH reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that positive cases in its meat processing plants had grown by 31%, from 388 in late April to 509, in 14 plants, although data in this report suggest that is likely an undercount.* To our knowledge, no comprehensive independent analysis has been done on Georgia.
The graph in Figure 2 shows how infection rates climbed from March through mid-August in four rural meatpacking counties, along with Dougherty and Hall counties. The blue dotted line shows the average rates for rural counties without meatpacking plants. It tops out around 2,000, but infection rates in counties with a high number of meat processing workers are more than 30% higher, ranging from 2,700 to 3,500 cases per 100,000.
We also looked at the early rise in cases for seven rural meatpacking counties with large plants of 300 or more workers: Habersham, Colquitt, and Mitchell counties (which appear in Figure 2) and Coffee, Dooly, Gilmer, and Jackson counties. Prior to May 15, these counties had nearly double the average infection rate as rural counties without plants. The counties with large plants had an average of 228 cases in that period, 55% higher than the 126-case average for 60 rural counties without plants.
The infection rate disparity in areas with plants has persisted throughout the pandemic: As of the first week of August, infection rates in counties with meatpacking plants of 100 or more workers had risen 20% higher than in rural counties without plants. Five counties with large plants — Polk, Evans, Emanuel, Coffee, and Bacon — were among those cited by the DPH in mid-August for spikes of new cases, as were four other counties with smaller plants.
Facing South's review of Georgia data on outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons found no evidence that infections in such "congregate living facilities" explained the high case rates in meatpacking counties, although the DPH reported that farm labor outbreaks in late May and June contributed to the rise in Colquitt County. The DPH did not respond to Facing South's requests for an interview, but after an email sharing our main findings, Communications Director Nancy Nydam replied by email that the DPH "respectfully declines comment."
In response to a formal public records request asking for comprehensive data on poultry plant outbreaks, DPH spokesperson Erin Wright wrote in an email that the agency had no such existing reports except for a June 2 spreadsheet DPH had sent to the CDC showing 509 positive cases in poultry plants through May 31. DPH declined to fill an additional data request Facing South placed through its Public Health Information Portal asking for a comprehensive COVID-19 case and death count for meatpacking plant workers.
The June spreadsheet provided by DPH shows that 86% of the 245 infected people for whom race or ethnicity was specified were non-white — 37% Black, 46% Hispanic, and just under 3% Asian. The DPH reported only three worker deaths to the CDC, although in news reports poultry companies confirmed twice that many. Of those infected, 90% were reported to have symptoms, an unusually high proportion.
'Risking our life for chicken'
Nationally, industrialized agriculture emerged as a center of risk for COVID-19 early on. An ongoing FERN tracker of food system outbreaks has found that meat processing makes up the majority of food system workplace infections, accounting for 65% of the total.
And Georgia was no different. In March, reports of outbreaks at meatpacking plants in the state led to high absenteeism rates at some of those plants. On March 23, police were called to disperse a walkout staged by over 40 workers at a Perdue plant in Houston County.
"We're not getting nothing … not even no cleanliness, no extra pay — no nothing. We're up here risking our life for chicken," employee Kendilyn Granville told a CBS reporter.
In the initial weeks of the outbreak, there was no masking, no physical distancing, and no plastic dividers at many poultry processors or in other workplaces officially declared essential. While companies struggled to implement safety measures without closing down plants the virus was spreading.
In southwest Georgia, four workers died during a Tyson Foods outbreak in late March. During the same time period Sanderson Farms, hampered by low restaurant sales and 619 workers in quarantine, trimmed back its quarterly production plans, according to a conference call among company leaders reported by the Atlanta Business Journal.
Shortly after those outbreaks became public, the Georgia Poultry Federation pushed an upbeat analysis that ran widely on statewide and national newscasts headlined: "Industry: Georgia Chicken Plant Production Unabated by COVID-19." The article contrasted Georgia's industry with the Midwest, where plant closures had cut meat production by 25%.
"You look at the money poultry brings into Georgia — this is strictly political," said Edgar Fields, president of the Southeast Council for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents workers in several plants, including the Tyson Plant in Mitchell County. Poultry plants are designed for speed, he said. "How many birds can I get through there in a minute — it's based upon having 2,000 people in that facility, working side by side. So they can't social distance."
In mid-April the Georgia DPH said that a cluster of mostly rural counties in southwest Georgia led the state for per capita growth in COVID-19 infections. The cluster included Mitchell County, where the fatal Tyson Foods outbreak took place; Colquitt County, home of the Sanderson Farms Plant; and two other counties with meatpacking plants.
The majority-Black poultry workforce in southwest Georgia has long grappled with systemic economic precarity. Often multiple generations of a single family work in poultry processing plants, as there are few other jobs to be had. Many workers are also at high risk from the virus due to chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. If workers come into contact with a family member who has tested positive or if they themselves feel sick, they'll be sent home, often without pay.
Many companies pay quarantined workers only if the workers test positive. It can take up to three weeks for test results to come in — three weeks without pay that most poultry workers can't afford, Fields said. Some workers can access short-term disability payments while quarantined, but often "that's money that those folks that don't have [union] contracts aren't getting," he added. The vast majority of poultry plants in Georgia are not unionized; just 4% of all Georgia workers in any sector are members of a union, less than half of the national rate.
In early May, the mayor of Athens, Georgia, said that he had contacted public health officials after hearing reports that COVID-positive employees were being pressured to work in the local Pilgrim's Pride plant. Because of their designation as critical infrastructure, CDC guidelines allowed asymptomatic workers who had been exposed to return to work as long as they had not tested positive.
But COVID-positive workers returning to work were cited in three out of six worker complaints about Georgia meat processors filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) between March 16 and June 3. Three cited failures to sanitize surfaces or provide socially distanced work stations, and two mentioned a lack of protective gear for workers. One said the company didn't inform workers about exposure to colleagues who tested positive. Two of the workers specifically mentioned the company's failure to follow the CDC guidelines that were jointly issued with OSHA.
Under the Trump administration, OSHA has cut back on workplace inspections in part due to inadequate allocations of funds for personnel. President Trump and the agency ignored a May 12 letter signed by attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia asking for stricter rules on the meat processing industry during the pandemic. The agency has issued only one fine for workplace safety violations in any sector since the start of the pandemic.
The new CDC/OSHA workplace guidelines are mainly advisory — filled with phrases like "if feasible" and "consider this option" that render them difficult to enforce. But in the pandemic, worker health is directly connected to public health. "To protect the public from COVID-19, you have to protect workers. If you don't, it continues to spread," said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff who is now a worker safety specialist at the National Employment Law Project.
As outbreaks spread through rural Georgia, there was rampant speculation as to their source. A Georgia CBS affiliate ran a story in early April asking, "Why does Dooly County have one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Central Georgia?" A local mayor pointed to the county's poultry plants, and the station said that it had received reports of an outbreak from workers at the nearby Tyson Foods, some of whom wanted to know why the plant hadn't been shut down. The company would not disclose details or confirm the reports.
Fields sees the official silence as a cover-up. "They don't want the real numbers out," he said.
Blaming the community
At the behest of Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Georgia was one of the first states to reopen restaurants and businesses beginning in late April. The state saw a rise in new COVID-19 cases in late May and a much larger surge in cases starting in mid-June.
As the state reopened, government spokespeople hammered home a message: The disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases in communities with "essential" (mainly non-white) workers was due not to their working conditions but to social behaviors and "cultural difference."
This was repeated in the June 2 report that Georgia DPH provided Facing South. Qualifiers at the top stated "These cases do not represent plant 'outbreaks' and should not be presented in such a way," and in capital letters: "THIS DOES NOT ASSUME INFECTIONS WERE ACQUIRED IN THE FACILITY." A text section stated: "Early on, we established that most, if not all, COVID-19 infections among poultry processing workers in Georgia are acquired in the community … and that socioeconomic factors not related to their employment are a huge factor for exposure and subsequent illness." The report cited "many, many, anecdotal reports" of workers in large social gatherings or church services, and the fact that many live with large families — an economic necessity often brought on by low wages at poultry plants. DPH noted a "dramatic decrease" in infections by late April after educational outreach in Hall County, although news reports in May reported continued infections.
DPH told Facing South that plant cases "have remained very low, despite a very large spike in cases statewide in June and July," and that they are "exceedingly impressed" with the Georgia poultry industry for health and safety measures, including "very diligent" contact tracing when a worker tests positive.
After touring the Fieldale plant in Gainesville, Kemp told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was impressed with the company's response. The outbreak, he said, "was an issue of those individuals going back home into the neighborhood and not understanding how they needed to adhere to best practices that created community spread in a really fairly restricted community."
This spin was reinforced by national coverage of a "super spreader" event at a large funeral at a Black church in early March, which drew over 200 people, including many from out of town, to Albany in southwest Georgia. Health workers traced the outbreak to an Atlanta native who had attended, and blamed the handshaking, hugs, and hours of socializing for the surge, along with another funeral held a week earlier. Seriously ill COVID-19 patients overwhelmed Albany's Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, where health workers plowed through a 6-month supply of protective gear in a week. "At one point we had nearly 200 cases in the hospital," Dr. James Black, who runs Phoebe Putney's emergency department, told Facing South.
But the timing of the funeral cases pouring into the hospital happened to coincide with outbreaks at two large meatpacking plants in neighboring counties: Tyson Foods, with 2,000 workers, in Mitchell County, and Sanderson Farms, with 1,500 workers, in Colquitt County. Hundreds of workers from both plants commuted daily back and forth across county lines to their homes in Dougherty County, where Albany is located. Although Tyson, where four workers died, would not confirm the total number of infected workers, Sanderson Farms reported 205 workers in quarantine after testing positive for the virus. Many of the workers sickened in meat processing facilities ended up in Phoebe Putney as well.
"Early on we traced many cases to the funerals," Black said. "We did have a lot of patients connected with meatpacking as well, but the contact tracing was slow to get off the ground, so it was virtually impossible to determine how people got it." As the funeral story spread, Sanderson Farms took the unusual step of sending 415 apparently healthy workers who lived in Dougherty County home from its Colquitt County plant for two weeks of paid quarantine. "We did not want to put ourselves in a position where we were transferring the virus," Pic Billingsley, Sanderson Farms' director of development and engineering, told Facing South. He said that local health officials told Sanderson that there was community spread in Dougherty, where many poultry industry workers live.
Billingsley said that by late March Sanderson had put several safety measures in place: mandatory masks and face shields, extra break space, and increased sanitization practices. But none of Sanderson Farms plants have slowed down their processing lines to allow workers to socially distance; many workers are still shoulder to shoulder. He would not provide details on the number of workers who have tested positive at any Sanderson Farms plants.
Sanderson's decision to send home workers from only one county, rather than plant-wide, epitomized the emerging industry talking points that spread was happening in the community, not the plant.
Public education and community engagement on safe practices are critical to stemming viral spread. Sarazua of the Hispanic Alliance told Facing South that in Gainesville and surrounding Hall County local officials and hospitals have made major strides since the spring in ensuring public health information is available in both English and Spanish. The Hispanic Alliance has been passing out fabric masks, along with food and economic relief, as fast as it can get them. But at the beginning of the outbreaks in March and April, the situation was much different.
A lack of accessible information for workers inside plants likely contributed to the virus's spread as well. In a report on COVID-19 among meat processing workers in April, CDC researchers cited companies' challenges interacting with advocates in workers' ethnic groups and a lack of safety information in workers' native languages as contributors to outbreaks. The researchers recommended companies provide safer transportation for workers, many of whom carpool or use crowded buses; however a later CDC report found that only 15% of companies had addressed this issue.
But "cultural difference" is a convenient foil when Georgia's $41 billion poultry industry and the politicians who defend it seek to pass off responsibility for infection risks faced by a vulnerable workforce. The sheer number and spread of COVID-19 cases in meat processing plants — in Georgia and elsewhere around the country — suggest that there are also problems in the plants. CDC researchers who reviewed data from a large outbreak in a Nebraska meatpacking plant found that 70% of the workers reported close contact with an infected person in the plant, while only 13% knew of such contact outside of the workplace.
As evidence of ongoing meatpacking spread has emerged, this industry narrative began to fall apart in the Midwest and Northeast, where outbreaks were most severe. Fourteen states have beefed up monitoring of COVID-19 in workplaces, including meatpacking.
But in the South, where the problem has garnered less national attention, Virginia and Kentucky are the only states to have instituted enforceable safety standards for workplaces, following a dedicated campaign by worker advocates. North Carolina has mandated masks in meat plants. In Arkansas, poultry companies have kept plants open even as thousands of workers have caught the virus.
Nationwide, while most large companies reported implementing safety standards by mid-May, over a month later FERN reported infection rates in meatpacking counties were still rising at a faster rate than other counties, contributing significantly to rural spread of the virus.
Without a standard, companies have been left to implement what management decides is best. And without much federal guidance, there has been a steep learning curve for some meat companies.
"There wasn't something mandated, supervised," said Sarazua. "There was never really a need to make any adjustments. Some just did it because their workers were afraid to go to work."
The voluntary approach to safety standards doesn't seem to have succeeded. And still there are no strict regulations from the state of Georgia or the federal government on safe working conditions in a pandemic. As of the latest CDC report, no poultry processing companies have self-reported slowing their processing line speeds, a move that would allow their workers to space further apart on the line. And Fields, the union president, doesn't think they'll do so unless required.
"[We need] some set procedures and policies, not just recommendations," he said. "They can't social distance with the way the plants are today."
*A previous version of this story stated that positive cases in meatpacking plants had grown by 76%. We regret the error.
Sandy Smith-Nonini is an adjunct assistant professor of medical anthropology at the University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill and a former investigative reporter for Southern Exposure, the print forerunner to Facing South.
Olivia Paschal is the archives editor with Facing South and a doctoral student in history at the University of Virginia. She was a staff reporter with Facing South for two years and spearheaded Poultry and Pandemic, Facing South's year-long investigation into conditions for Southern poultry workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Southerly, Scalawag, the Arkansas Times, and Civil Eats, among other publications.