Kansas Meatpacking Workers Faced Outbreak After Outbreak, But Still Can’t Get A COVID Vaccine

Feb 18, 2021
Originally published on February 18, 2021 9:54 am

Thousands of meatpacking workers in southwest Kansas continue to wait for any news about when they’ll get the COVID-19 vaccine.

That wait drags on even as some counties vaccinate college faculty, first responders and postal workers, and as Kansas launches a new program to get a first dose into the arm of every school worker by early April.

Meatpacking plants have been the state’s third-biggest source of coronavirus outbreaks, eclipsed only by long-term care facilities (such as nursing homes) and jails and prisons.

“Meatpacking workers have taken one of the hardest hits of this pandemic,” said Monica Vargas-Huertas, a political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 2 representing 7,000 meatpacking workers in two southwest Kansas counties. “They have been in the front lines from Day One.”

The factory-scale slaughterhouses stayed open when many other businesses closed under statewide stay-at-home orders last spring.

“They kept working, securing the food (supply),” Vargas-Huertas said, “and securing the economy of the state.”

But state officials say meatpacking facilities took steps that greatly reduced transmission within their walls. In the past two weeks, they say, the plants have seen no fresh coronavirus outbreaks involving five or more cases.

And Kansas simply doesn’t receive enough vaccines per week from the federal government to quickly vaccinate all essential workers.

Ashley Goss, deputy secretary for public health, says Gov. Laura Kelly wants to get children back to school as soon as possible because missing so much in-person contact with peers and educators can have long-term effects on learning and mental health.

“She’s had to make some really tough decisions,” Goss said. “And she feels very strongly for our school staff to be the next push.”

Kansas was receiving fewer than 100,000 doses a week from the federal government, though shipments should soon increase to about 115,000 a week.

To speed shots to school workers, Kansas is redirecting some doses from counties that have made more progress than others on vaccinating their residents.

For now, it will not do the same for meatpacking workers.

Hot spots

Kansas has some of the country’s most productive beef-packing plants. The industry drives the economies of Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal.

The meatpacking workers are largely immigrants and people of color. Mounting evidence from other states suggests people of color across the country aren’t receiving equitable access to the coronavirus vaccine.

Kansas will soon publish vaccination statistics that shed light on whether that holds true here, too.

The state’s figures on known COVID cases already show Hispanic people significantly more likely to catch the virus than non-Hispanic people.

Nearly 4,000 known cases of COVID-19 and two dozen deaths link directly to the slaughterhouses in Kansas.

Infections related to the plants continue to have serious ripple effects. Five ongoing outbreaks linked to the plants have led to nearly 1,800 known cases in their communities and 14 deaths.

Scientists remain uncertain how long a survivor enjoys immunity before catching the illness again, meaning workers fear re-infection.

“We want to prevent a new wave,” Vargas-Huertas said. “We cannot wait four or five months.”

Phase 2 vaccines

Meatpacking workers fall into Phase 2 of the state’s vaccine rollout plan. (Phase 1 focused on health care workers and nursing homes.)

But Phase 2 is a bucket so massive that it includes about 1 million people, or a third of the state’s population. It covers everyone over the age of 65 and a wide variety of other groups, such as teachers, police and grocery clerks.

The state largely lets each county make its own decisions on how to prioritize within that bucket.

“We’ve tried to stick with public health being decentralized in our state,” Goss said. “Local health authorities have the ability to decide.”

This week the governor’s office announced one exception: It will start earmarking doses each week for school workers.

But meatpackers in Seward, Ford and Finney counties remain unclear when their turn will come.

UFCW International Local 2 represents workers at plants in Seward and Ford counties and communicates regularly with other workers in Finney County.

It says workers haven’t been able to get shots unless they qualify based on reasons other than their jobs.

“Only those workers over 65 years old have received a vaccine or an appointment,” Vargas-Huertas said. “The rest of the workers, they haven’t even received an appointment.”

The sites are eagerly preparing, she said. Health care workers employed by the plants have already gathered information from employees to prioritize which ones face the greatest health risks and should get the shots first when they become available.

State health officials say plants have applied to give the vaccine on site, so eventually Kansas will send doses to them directly.

Only, Kansas can’t get its hands on enough doses yet to make that happen, Goss said, despite pleading with every federal agency it can think of.

“Oh my gosh,” Goss said. “I’ve told anyone who will listen. … Anyone who has an ear in the federal government or is part of it. We tell them if there’s anyone’s vaccine (who) can’t use it, doesn’t want it, that you just want to give us — we’ll take it. We’re more than happy to beg and borrow.”

No plant shutdowns

Early in the pandemic, some meatpacking workers said their plants should close for deep cleaning when coronavirus began spreading on the slaughterhouse floors. At least one county medical officer agreed.

The companies opposed closure, and National Beef urged the Kelly administration to make clear to meatpacking workers — many of whom were fearful of continuing to show up for work in buildings where the disease was spreading — that they have a “special responsibility” to do their jobs.

State officials said they could close the plants if necessary, but wanted to avoid that and require changes within the buildings to promote safety instead.

The Kelly and Trump administrations threw their weight behind ramping up COVID-19 testing for meatpacking plants to keep the facilities open. The state said workers with known COVID-19 exposure could keep going to work unless they showed symptoms.

Finding a shot

But inside the plants, true social distancing is impossible, the union says, and plexiglass and face masks can only do so much.

Public announcements on the Facebook pages and websites of Seward, Finney and Ford counties and a southwest Kansas clinic that has helped with outreach and giving shots don’t say when meatpacking workers will get their doses.

Nor have workers been able to find that out from the state health department.

By late January, Finney County was vaccinating people over the age of 65, police officers, firefighters and clergy.

Day care workers, UPS, FedEx and postal workers, city employees and taxi drivers were among those who became eligible next.

This week, community college faculty and school employees also get their turn.

The most recent update on the Seward County Facebook page, meanwhile, says the county is scheduling people over the age of 90 or in critical functions, but doesn’t elaborate on the latter category.

The Kansas News Service has reached out to Finney, Seward and Ford counties seeking more information. A regional health clinic that has helped administer doses in southwest Kansas deferred to local health authorities.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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