SciLine interviewed: Dr. Melissa Perry, a professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University. There, one of her projects focuses on identifying risks to workers at meatpacking plants and other workplaces, and developing ways to address these risks.
Why is coronavirus spreading so readily among workers in meatpacking plants?
MELISSA PERRY: The research that I’ve done in meatpacking plants has shown me that meatpacking is a very crowded workplace setting. Literally, workers are standing shoulder to shoulder. It’s also a very fast-paced setting. And because we know one of the most essential things that we need to do to prevent viral spread is to stay at least 6 foot apart, that makes it very challenging in meatpacking plants if, in fact, workers are standing so closely together. So that’s most likely the leading explanation as to why we’re seeing these outbreaks in meatpacking plants.
Is it just the workers who are getting sick, or are these outbreaks spreading to the whole community where these plants are based?
MELISSA PERRY: There are a number of researchers hard at work in tracking each and every case of infections tied to meatpacking, and they suggest that they originate from the plants, but in fact, workers can go home and spread the virus to family members that ultimately lead to community spread as well. So there are estimates on the – upwards of 20,000 or more cases that have been tied in some way to meatpacking plants around the country.
Does this affect the safety of meat processed at these plants?
MELISSA PERRY: At this point in time, there’s no evidence that the coronavirus is spread by meat. It doesn’t have to do with meat specifically. That’s not the reason why we’re seeing these outbreaks. It’s most likely due to how crowded it is for workers when they’re working on the line and the necessity of being able to be physically distanced.
Are there other occupations where people are at higher risk of catching COVID-19?
MELISSA PERRY: What we’ve seen through this pandemic is that there are essential practices that we all need to adhere to. If we’re feeling sick, we need to stay home. We need to constantly keep our hands clean, use soap and water, use hand sanitizer. When we’re coughing, sneezing, we need to ensure to do that in a tissue that can be disposed of properly. And we need to maintain at least 6-foot distances. That’s for everybody. And for essential workers, they, too, need to be able to adhere to that, those practices. So, for example, for manufacturers and in meatpacking, the work requires people to stand very close together, so we’re seeing outbreaks in those workplace settings. Also, for grocery store workers who have a lot of contact with the public, they, too, are getting infected. And even first and foremost, health care workers who both have to work very intimately and also a lot of contact with sick people, they, too, are – have been infected disproportionately with the virus. So these are all essential workers that really need to be given proper protections.
What does the research say about how people working in these kinds of occupations can stay healthy?
MELISSA PERRY: So the research says that we all need to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines about how to prevent infection. If you’re not feeling well, stay at home. Take care of yourself. Keep yourself distanced from others. Keep yourself distanced if you’re not feeling well. Or if others are not feeling well, you, too, have to impose self-quarantine to not be in proximity to sick people. In the workplace, we need to have ready access to water sanitation hygiene, hand sanitizer. We need to all be wearing masks in the workplace. And we need to be always able to maintain 6-foot distances or more in order to not come in contact with anyone that might have the virus and be able to transmit it. If we’re all doing that, we can very much prevent viral spread, and so can all of the essential workers that we as a country are so reliant on right now.
What steps should be taken now to protect the meatpacking industry and other industries where people work in close proximity from the next outbreak of an infectious disease?
MELISSA PERRY: By all indications, the coronavirus is going to be with us for a long time, and so every individual has a part to play in being able to reduce transmission. It is a really important time to be thinking about workplaces that require crowded conditions, such as in manufacturing and in meatpacking plants. If it’s not this coronavirus, it’s likely to be another emerging virus that we have to be aware of. So the separation and protections to prevent viral spread through the air really have to be evaluated now so that we can keep workers protected both now and in the future.
We’re hearing about the spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants. Are workers in other environments being hit especially hard by the virus?
MELISSA PERRY: We know that the coronavirus is spread from person to person. So if you think about it, those workplaces that have a lot of interaction with others and might be very crowded are at the highest risk. That means that in meatpacking and in manufacturing, where workers are crowded together, they are at high risk. And we’re seeing outbreaks in those types of work settings. Also, grocery store workers – anyone that’s having a lot of contact with the public – they, too, are experiencing infections due to their work. And then first and foremost, health care workers who both are working very intimately and very closely with the public and with sick patients, they have been experiencing some of the highest numbers of infections, based on the work that they do. All of these workers are essential. The American public is dependent on them, and so we really need to ensure they’re getting all of the protections necessary to keep them protected from getting the virus.