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Meatpacking workers account for one in six coronavirus cases; Nebraska's total cases top 7,000

Meatpacking workers account for one in six coronavirus cases; Nebraska's total cases top 7,000

LINCOLN — Nebraska meatpacking workers account for nearly one of every six cases of coronavirus in the state, according to state officials.

Gov. Pete Ricketts released figures Thursday showing that 1,005 of the state’s 6,771 cases reported as of Wednesday evening involved employees at packing plants and other food processing plants. Total cases topped 7,000 as of Thursday evening.

At his daily coronavirus briefing, Ricketts resisted calls to name the plants involved and said he has advised local health departments to ask permission from the meatpacking companies before reporting about cases at specific plants.

Ricketts also said local departments should verify employment information before reporting that cases are linked to specific plants, citing cases in which he said that people being tested have not given accurate information.

“We want to make this a collaborative process,” he said, when asked why private businesses should be allowed a veto over health information.

Some local public health departments have released information naming local meatpacking plants that were seeing coronavirus cases among employees. Some also reported names of long-term care facilities in the area where residents or staff had tested positive for the potentially deadly virus. Ricketts said the state would reveal that information only in the aggregate as well.

Nursing home and assisted living residents account for two of every three deaths in Nebraska, or 57 of the 86 total deaths as of Wednesday. State records show that 267 residents and 188 staffers at those facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus.

By contrast, three meatpacking workers have died.

The people most at risk from coronavirus are older people and people with underlying health problems, which describes most long-term care residents. A large share of deaths in Nebraska have occurred in communities that have seen disease outbreaks centered on meatpacking plans.

Advocates for meatpacking workers have complained that not enough was done early enough to protect employees who work shoulder-to-shoulder as they trim meat from carcasses of hogs, cattle and chickens.

Outbreaks have caused packinghouses in Madison and Schuyler to close temporarily and others to slow production. A backlog of slaughtering operations in Nebraska and other states has hog producers contemplating euthanizing pigs that they can no longer afford to feed.

On Thursday, Ricketts acknowledged that cases could have been prevented if state officials or the meatpacking companies had acted sooner to protect workers.

“Yes, if I’d known things two months ago that I know today, I’d have done things differently,” he said. “That’s called experience.”

State and local health officials began taking steps in April after several cases were discovered among employees at the JBS plant in Grand Island. The steps included visits to the plants from infection control experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the development of an infection control “playbook” for meatpackers and regular calls with the governor.

Ricketts said that experience in dealing with that first packinghouse hot spot in Grand Island helped officials address a later outbreak at the Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Lexington.

“Trying to Monday-morning quarterback this is a little difficult, because nobody has dealt with this in 100 years in our country,” he said. “We’re learning from our experience. We’re doing a better job.”

Nebraska last dealt with a pandemic, the so-called Spanish influenza, in 1918.

During the briefing, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Gary Anthone, said utilization of hospital beds in both Grand Island and Lexington had declined this week, which is good news.

On other topics, Ricketts said no decision has been made about when youth sports might be allowed to start up again, but it will not happen in May. Nor will there be any change this month in the expectation that anyone who travels outside Nebraska or comes into the state should quarantine themselves for 14 days, he said. The quarantine requirement does not apply to people who travel because of work.

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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