BOISE — As Idaho continues to vaccinate health care workers and nursing home residents, the state’s food plant workers are scheduled to be among the next essential workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting as early as February.
Outbreaks at meatpacking and food processing plants fueled the spread of the coronavirus across Idaho last year, infecting hundreds of workers in largely rural parts of the state. These outbreaks also contributed to the coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on vulnerable immigrants and Idaho Latinos that comprise the main workforce of Idaho food plants — and were the majority of coronavirus cases in many Magic Valley counties for months.
Idaho is still in the process of vaccinating the state’s first designated priority groups. Although limited supply has slowed Idaho’s rollout process as it has in many other states, more than 26,806 Idahoans have received at least their first dose of vaccines manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna as of Friday.
The state’s Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee used recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine which high risk groups and essential workers would be prioritized for the vaccine first. Essential workers and older adults are scheduled to begin receiving the vaccine in February. Right now, food processing workers are prioritized after first responders, law enforcement, teachers, childcare workers and corrections staff, and before grocery and convenience store employees, the Idaho National Guard and other essential workers unable to telework.
“This is all about health care capacity,” said Idaho Gov. Brad Little during an AARP call Tuesday, in response to a question about why Idaho wasn’t prioritizing seniors higher on the rollout schedule. “Some of those essential workers are vectors for spread, that have been exposed all along in this. And that’s why some of those essential workers that have that everyday exposure are in that group.”
These recommended priorities are already shifting. In December, the CDC adjusted vaccine delivery guidance and recommended states prioritize older adults higher than previously recommended. Some states like Florida are already offering the vaccine to any seniors that want it. Idaho’s vaccine advisory committee met Friday to determine exactly when older Idahoans can get the vaccine. The majority of the committee voted to recommend adding adults 65 and older to the group scheduled to begin receiving the vaccine in February, which includes essential workers. Gov. Little must approve the recommendation.
During the discussion before the vote, Dr. Casi Wyatt, an infectious disease specialist in Boise, reminded the committee that prioritizing vaccinations for younger essential workers along with the vulnerable elderly would help put a dent in some of the “super-spreaders of the virus.”
“It’s really important to keep in mind the epidemiology reasons that we do vaccines,” Wyatt said. “The first is to protect the individual, but it is also to protect the society. We should not just focus on the vulnerable people, the ones who are more risk to get hospitalized, because they’re getting it from somewhere.”
Elizabeth Wakeman, a philosophy professor at College of Idaho and a member of the West Valley Medical Center’s ethics committee, told the Idaho Statesman in late December she couldn’t speak for the reasons why her fellow vaccine committee members voted to prioritize each group. For her part, she tried to weigh decisions based more on slowing the spread of the virus.
“The very idea that we have to decide whether firefighters get it before or after teachers. You know that that’s not the world we want to live in,” Wakeman said. “I encouraged them to think in terms of controlling the pandemic and not in terms of the value of people.”
Why have so many food processing workers contracted COVID-19?
It became clear early on in the pandemic that food processing and meatpacking plants across the country had become deadly incubators for the coronavirus. Melissa Perry, a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, studies the meat processing industry. She said meatpacking plants, in particular, were such a major source of transmission in several states in the early months of the pandemic because of the often-crowded working conditions.
Meatpacking plants and other facilities like them have implemented varying levels of safety measures in the last several months. Employers issue masks, have advanced cleaning protocols and keep workers from congregating together for meals.
“But what they haven’t done is they haven’t slowed the line down and spaced workers further apart on the line, so that’s going to be a continuous source of transmission,” Perry said. “That’s just kind of the the basics, or the nuts and bolts of how the virus is being transmitted meatpacking plants. And that hasn’t changed at all.”
The Idaho Statesman began tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in Idaho’s agricultural sector in August, relying on a combination of data gleaned from public records requests to health districts and tips submitted by readers. There have been more than 900 coronavirus cases tied to employees of roughly 30 Idaho agribusinesses. This list is likely incomplete, as each public health district reports outbreaks differently, and some like South Central Public Health District in the Magic Valley were unable to identify employers or quickly identify workplace outbreaks due to high case loads in October and November.
“Food processing facilities were hit hard in our community in part because the facilities simply aren’t designed to prevent respiratory diseases,” said Brianna Bodily, the spokeswoman for South Central Public Health District. “These buildings often require employees to work in close proximity and may not be well ventilated.”
Some employees told health officials they were initially reluctant to stay home from work with only minor symptoms because they needed to provide for their families, Bodily said.
“That reluctance may have unintentionally infected several of their coworkers,” Bodily said.
While outbreaks in food processing and meatpacking plants in other states left several employees dead, the Statesman has only identified three workers who died from COVID-19, based on data from public health districts. An employee of Amalgamated Sugar in Twin Falls died in July, a McCain Foods employee died sometime in 2020, and an employee of Lamb Weston in the Magic Valley died sometime in 2020, according to South Central Public Health District. Amalgamated Sugar previously told the Idaho Statesman its plants were not a source of coronavirus spread, but it remains unclear whether the employees contracted the virus in the community or at work.
In an Dec. 21 email, Bodily said many cases on the updated list of facilities with coronavirus clusters were not part of new outbreaks, but in facilities that had mostly resolved their clusters months ago.
The South Central Public Health District calls a facility COVID-19 outbreak a “cluster,” identified as a facility that has had at least five cases connected by epidemiological evidence. Other health districts, like Southwest District Health based in Caldwell, don’t track clusters or outbreak by facility.
As it’s still unclear what level of herd immunity will protect against outbreaks and whether people with the vaccine can still transmit the virus to others, Perry pointed out that meatpacking plants and similar facilities will likely have to follow safety precautions for a while.
“Yes, the vaccine holds real promise, but it will not be a solution tomorrow,” Perry said. “And so, in meatpacking plants at the bare minimum, the physical distancing on the line is essential for keeping workers safe from COVID.”
How will food processing workers get the vaccine?
The state still has several weeks of vaccinating health care workers and nursing home staff and residents, so state and local health officials don’t have a lot of answers yet about essential worker priority groups. State health officials suggested in a Tuesday media call vaccines may be given through employer clinics, similar to the mass testing that occurred.
Some large employers in the Idaho ag sector, like Amalgamated Sugar, said they’re ready to work with local health officials to make sure their employees can receive the vaccine.
“Our highest priority at Amalgamated Sugar is employee safety, and the COVID-19 vaccine will play a part in keeping our employees safe and healthy,” said Jessica Anderson, the spokesperson for Amalgamated Sugar. “Since vaccine availability and timing are still uncertain, we are researching possible ways forward. We understand essential food processing workers in Idaho and Oregon will be given the same priority they have been given across the nation.”
Health officials also hope vaccinating enough food processing workers could help slow the spread of COVID-19 among Idaho’s Latino communities.
“Getting vaccines to these facilities not only helps prevent a cluster of cases in an environment that may encourage the spread of COVID-19, but it also brings vaccine to a demographic in our region that has been hit hard by this disease,” Bodily said. “Our Latino and Hispanic residents fill a lot of the jobs in these facilities and have been hit disproportionately hard by this disease. The hope is that by vaccinating members of these families that are working in higher risk jobs, there is less chance the disease will hitch a ride home.”
That means the vaccine isn’t just working to protect the individual but, to some degree, their entire family, she said. It is still unknown whether the vaccines can prevent transmission, on top of protecting the vaccinated person from symptomatic infection.
At least 20% of Idahoans who have tested positive for coronavirus are Hispanic or Latino, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Latinos are just 13% of Idaho’s population. Although health district data shows Idaho Latinos are no longer testing positive at such disproportionate rates as earlier in the pandemic, they still make up a slightly higher percentage of coronavirus cases than the proportion of their population in Payette, Washington, Cassia, Gooding and Minidoka, Jerome and Lincoln counties.
Spanish is the primary language for some food processing employees in Idaho, and Margie Gonzalez from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs said her office is working with other community leaders to get facts about the vaccine to Idaho Latinos. Gonzalez is a non-voting member of Idaho’s vaccine advisory committee, and she said rumors and misinformation about the vaccine have been spreading in Spanish and among Idaho Latinos, just like in other communities.
“That is alarming, if we don’t get some factual information out to our community,” Gonzalez said.
In addition to deciding when the vaccine will be available to older Idahoans, the vaccine advisory committee will continue ranking specific subgroups of essential workers in order of who will be offered the vaccine first. Choosing whether to vaccinate food processing workers or grocery story employees earlier, for example, may factor in where the virus is spreading the fastest and sending the most people to the hospital. If approved by Gov. Little, it’s still unclear where Idahoans 65 and older will rank in the group.
“What can we do to limit the spread and to try to focus on getting the vaccines in ways that would bring it down, because that would help everybody?” Wakeman said. “How can we most effectively use our limited amount of vaccine to control the pandemic, which will help all of us?”