Urgent action is needed to protect the U.S. food and agricultural workforce against covid-19, according to a new policy brief released by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF).
Widespread outbreaks at meatpacking plants highlight the need for stronger measures to protect workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now documented 5,000 covid-19 cases and 20 deaths among workers at 115 meat and poultry processing across 19 states.
“Covid-19 has exacted a heavy toll on workers at every stage of the U.S. food supply chain. Millions of food service workers have lost their jobs in recent months, while others face the risk of exposure to the virus working on the front lines of the pandemic. Infections have been reported among workers at farms, meatpacking plants, food-processing plants, distribution facilities, grocery stores, and restaurants,” said CLF.
The policy brief outlines steps that companies, labor unions, and government agencies can take to protect food system workers and the food supply chain during the covid-19 pandemic by using a “SHIELD · TEST · TRACE · TREAT” framework.
“Even before the pandemic, meatpacking workers often experienced hazardous conditions and high rates of injury and illness. What we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is compounding health risks faced by an already vulnerable population,” said Keeve Nachman, director of the CLF’s Food Production and Public Health Program. “Our goal with this brief was to describe how workplace conditions in the food system could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, and provide a framework decision-makers can use to provide the best possible protections to workers.”
The core components of the framework detailed in the policy brief include:
- SHIELD: Protect food and agriculture workers using mitigation strategies based on the hierarchy of controls such as: maintaining a six-foot distance between workers, installing physical barriers, staggering worker shifts, and providing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
- TEST: Prioritize food and agriculture workers for regular covid-19 testing.
- TRACE: Covid-19 cases must be subject to contact tracing by state and local health departments.
- TREAT: Provide workers affected by covid-19 with access to health care, isolation, quarantine pay, and other support to stop outbreaks.
The authors of the brief said that in addition to these measures, ongoing monitoring and evaluation should play an essential role in assessing the effectiveness of each intervention and adjusting course as needed.