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Rural counties that contain meatpacking plants with outbreaks of Covid-19 have infection rates that are five times higher on average than the rest of rural America.

Of the rural counties with the highest infection rates, most contain slaughterhouses where workers have contracted Covid-19. These rural counties also rank among those hardest hit by the disease nationally, a data analysis shows.

The analysis, by the Daily Yonder and the Food & Environment Reporting Network, shows that the meatpacking industry is intertwined with the continued spread of Covid-19 in rural areas, with the top counties surpassing infection rates seen even in urban hotspots like New York City.

The analysis used data collected by FERN on outbreaks of Covid-19 among workers at meatpacking plants to identify rural and small-metropolitan counties where those workers are employed. FERN and the Daily Yonder then compared infection rates in those counties to infection rates in rural and small-metropolitan counties that don’t have outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

Nationally, of the 10 counties with the highest infection rates of Covid-19, six have meatpacking plants with outbreaks.

FERN has been tracking the number of meatpacking, food-processing, and farmworkers who have contracted Covid-19 since mid-April. This rural county analysis used data from outbreaks at 110 meatpacking plants, in 102 counties, where nearly 13,000 workers had contracted Covid-19 and at least 55 had died as of May 22.

Most of the counties that are home to meatpacking plants with outbreaks are rural. An additional 21 percent are small metropolitan areas, and 14 percent each are mid-size metropolitan areas and major metropolitan areas.

The map at the top of the story overlays nearly all of the outbreaks that FERN has tracked at meatpacking plants — 115 plants as of May 26 — with county infection rates. The visualization highlights that meatpacking plants with outbreaks tend to be located in rural hotspots, suggesting a link between outbreaks at meatpacking plants and the spread of the disease in surrounding areas.

This association becomes clearer when zooming in on specific regions. The map below plots six outbreaks in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas: two Tyson Foods beef plants in Holcomb, Kansas, and Amarillo, Texas; two National Beef plants in Dodge City and Liberal, Kansas; a Seaboard Foods pork plant in Guymon, Oklahoma; and a JBS beef plant in Cactus, Texas. The plants’ counties, most of which are rural, have significantly higher infection rates than counties further from the plants.

A similar pattern can be seen in central and eastern Iowa, where there have been seven outbreaks at meatpacking facilities, including at three Tyson Foods pork plants in Waterloo, Perry, and Columbus Junction; a National Beef plant in Tama; a JBS pork plant in Marshalltown; a West Liberty meat plant in West Liberty; and a Prestage Foods pork plant in Eagle Grove. The infection rates in the mostly rural counties with the meatpacking plants exceed rates in the surrounding rural counties.

Another example can be found in Nebraska, where a majority of meatpacking plants with outbreaks are located in rural counties, including a Tyson Foods pork plant in Madison, a Tyson Foods meat plant in Lexington, a Cargill beef plant in Schuyler, a Costco chicken plant in Fremont, a Smithfield pork plant in Crete, and a Western Reserve beef plant in Hastings.

Note on Methodology

The data for Covid-19 infections and deaths is from USA Facts, a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization and includes cases through May 23, 2020. We used 2019 U.S. census population estimates to calculate infection rates, expressed as the number of cases per 100,000 residents. We excluded instances where a case occurred on a cruise ship or where a state had not yet assigned a case to a specific county. The data compiled by FERN is derived from the dataset in our map on Covid-19 outbreaks, and the same methodology notes apply. The data used for the rural county analysis included outbreaks through May 22, 2020.

The Daily Yonder produced this article in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit news organization. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, or embedding the tables or charts, please contact FERN at info@thefern.org.

Leah Douglas is an associate editor and staff writer at FERN.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

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