WASHINGTON – The combination of universal masking and physical barriers helped lower COVID-19 infection rates among meat and poultry workers, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said. Infection rates among workers are more than five times lower than in the general US population and 95% lower than peak case rates in the sector from May 2020.

Citing data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), NAMI said the meat and poultry sector was reported to have an average of 4.81 new reported cases per 100,000 workers per day in February 2021, compared with 26.15 cases per 100,000 people in the general US population as reported in The New York Times.

NAMI also noted that the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that the combination of universal masking and physical barriers reduced cases of COVID-19 significantly in 62% of meat facilities studied. An analysis published in the Lancet in June 2020 found that distancing of 3 feet and using facemasks each reduce transmission by about 80% and using eye protection reduces transmission by about 65%.

NAMI said interventions taken by meat processors — such as entry screening measures and controls; face coverings and other personal protective equipment; increasing physical distancing and reduced gathering points through altered traffic patterns, additional break/eating spaces, staggered shifts and breaks; and installing physical barriers — continue to protect workers.

“Nearly one year after the first reported COVID-19 cases in the sector, we are grateful that comprehensive measures instituted since spring 2020 continue to protect our dedicated workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, NAMI president and chief executive officer. “Vaccination supplies have so far been limited, but we urge the federal and state governments to rapidly expand vaccine access for the long-term protection of the 500,000 men and women who keep food on Americans’ tables and our farm economy working.”

Still, processing plant workers are being vaccinated. So far, more than 2,000 US employees of Tyson Foods Inc. have been recently vaccinated either at on-site events or through an external source. JBS USA and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. announced on Feb. 28 that roughly 8,500 workers in eight states would be given the opportunity to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Cargill announced on Feb. 26 that employees at the company's beef-processing plants in Dodge City, Kan., Lake Odessa, Mich. and Schuyler, Neb., will have the opportunity to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Perdue Farms and Foster Farms began offering vaccines to workers in early February.