Workers at food processing facilities, which experienced some of the country’s largest known coronavirus outbreaks at the start of the pandemic, are now eligible for vaccines in at least 26 states, according to a New York Times investigation.
The extension of vaccines to food processing workers comes against a backdrop of rapidly expanding eligibility, especially for essential workers at greater risk of contracting the virus. Almost all states vaccinate a subset of frontline workers, but the list of eligible occupations varies widely. In at least six states, food processing workers are eligible in some counties but not in others.
Meat and poultry processing facilities remained wide open even as large epidemics infected thousands of workers and killed dozens of people in the first months of the pandemic. The virus began to spread rapidly in meat packing facilities as assembly line workers stood side by side in tight spaces.
A JBS USA pork production plant in Worthington, Minnesota, with more than 700 recorded coronavirus cases, held a mass vaccination event on Friday. JBS USA, a subsidiary of JBS SA, a Brazilian company that is the world’s largest meat processing company, offered employees who receive the vaccine bonuses of $ 100.
There was a lot of skepticism among the members, for many different reasons, said Matt Utecht, who represents Worthington workers as president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663. He said union representatives have visited the facility several times in recent months to share information about the vaccine and have signed around 1,500 unions, or 1,850 members.
It has been a daily routine to educate, to speak, to communicate, he said.
The production and distribution of vaccines is steadily increasing in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday that about 79.4 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, including about 43 million people who were fully vaccinated. About 2.25 million doses are given each day on average, down from less than one million two months ago.
With demand for vaccines consistently greater than supply, states have faced competing interests in deciding which groups to prioritize. Eligibility opened to many food processing workers in early March across much of the Midwest, where meat packaging and food production is a major part of the economy and often a source of employment for recent immigrants.
In Kansas, where food processing workers are now eligible for the vaccine, nearly 4,000 reported cases have been linked to outbreaks at meat-packing plants, more than in any other setting except centers for long-term care and correctional facilities.
It’s a livelihood that supports a number of immigrant populations, said Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governors of Kansas on Covid-19. And it was very important that the governor send a signal that she wants to keep these families safe and keep these industries open.
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