WASHINGTON — USDA federal meat inspectors look to be the latest victims of the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreading inside processing plants in the United States.

Tim Kaufmann, spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union representing 6,500 federal food inspectors, confirmed that three inspectors have died – one from Illinois, one from Mississippi and one from New York City.

A USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) spokesperson said, about 197 field employees were absent from work as of May 5 and another 120 were under self-quarantine.

FSIS also said that it now has enough masks and face coverings on hand to keep its inspection personnel supplied for the next few months.

“The safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement. “We thank those working on the front lines of our food supply chain for remaining on the job and for making sure the American people have access to safe food.”

The association also said it has supplemented its inspection personnel by increasing the number of hours part-time workers can work and by calling on other USDA employees who have been trained in inspection from other parts of FSIS, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Following President Donald Trump’s executive order to keep meat processing plants open last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) urged the administration to strengthen COVID-19 testing and worker safety measures in order to keep the supply chain moving.

According new estimates from the union released on May 6, more than 8,000 meatpacking workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms, and at least 27 have died.