USDA official says chances of COVID-19 spread in packing plants now "virtually nil"

USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach speaks Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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May 28, 2020 - 5:52pm

Despite thousands of COVID-19 cases among meatpacking workers in Nebraska, a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Thursday safety improvements mean chances of the disease spreading in plants are now “virtually nil.”

Greg Ibach is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, and former head of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. At Gov. Pete Ricketts coronavirus news conference Thursday, Ibach talked about USDA programs to help farmers and ranchers during the pandemic.

He also talked about working with officials, including Ricketts, when COVID-19 cases started to affect workers in meatpacking plants and disrupt meat processing. Ibach said they came up with protocols for additional shielding, masking, and social distancing in the plants. Ibach said that’s been successful.

“We feel now, and many epidemiologists that have viewed these feel, that the likelihood of community spread in a packing – processing plant today is virtually nil. And definitely no greater than what you would have out in your – in your normal community and going to the grocery store,” Ibach said.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said Thursday so far there have been 2,985 COVID-19 cases in Nebraska related to meat processing, and 11 deaths. That’s up from the 1,005 cases and three deaths on May 7, the day the state first reported figures for food processing workers.

Ibach was asked how he squared his declaration of progress with those figures. He suggested the increase  was because of extensive testing of packing plant workers, and the way figures are reported.

“That’s probably one of the most heavily tested areas within the worker segment. And it’s also an area within the people that are going to work every day that are getting segregated out as far as the numbers. We don’t ask how many grocery store workers have tested positive or other segments of society that are out working,” he said.

Anthone confirmed the state does not have figures on grocery store employees.

However, Anthone did give an update on cases in long term care facilities, such as nursing homes. He said 475 residents and 356 staff have tested positive at a total of 107 facilities, with 87 deaths. That’s a little over half the state’s 163 deaths from COVID-19 so far.

Ricketts said the state has greatly increased the number of people tested, from about 27,500 at the beginning of May to 90,000 now. And he said some of the credit for that goes to the TestNebraska program that he instituted, hiring a group of private Utah companies to set it up.

When he announced the $27 million program in late April, Ricketts said the goal was to be testing 3,000 people a day in about five weeks. On Wednesday, Anthone said, just under 1,700 people were tested. Ricketts said the plan is to have 6 teams capable of conducting 500 tests a day each. But he said geography imposes some limits.

“When we send teams to places like Clay Center, which we did this week – we need to, we need to go to rural parts of the state, we can’t ignore our rural parts of the state, we can’t just stay in Lincoln and Omaha – we got 68 swabs out of Clay Center. So when we go to smaller rural towns, we’re not going to be able to get 500 tests because there just aren’t that many people that are going to be signing up and doing it,” Ricketts said.

But Ricketts said he’s still pushing TestNebraska to reach 3,000 tests a day. Anthone said of the 18,412 test results received under the program, 596, or 3.2 percent, have tested positive. That compares to a positivity rate of about 14 percent of people tested overall.

 Officials have attributed the difference to the fact that other testing has concentrated more in known hotspots around the state or on people with symptoms.





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