A fourth food safety inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture has died of COVID-19 as cases continue to surge at meat processing plants across the nation.
About 10,000 COVID-19 cases have been linked to workers at the plants and their contacts, according to a recent analysis by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The cases involve about 170 plants in 29 states. At least 30 workers have died. Of the 30 counties in the U.S. with the highest per capita COVID-19 cases last week, 10 have major meatpacking plants.
The latest inspector to die worked in Dodge City, Kansas, Paula Schelling, of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Bloomberg. The man was in his 50s, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. The other three food safety inspectors who have died of COVID-19 worked in New York, Illinois and Mississippi, the union told the newspaper.
As of Tuesday, 123 USDA food safety and inspection service workers were under self-quarantine because of suspected coronavirus exposure. An additional 171 field employees were absent from work because of a COVID-19 diagnosis, according to a USDA statement, Bloomberg reported.
A statement from the USDA said it could ”confirm the passing” of an inspector but did not reveal the cause of death.
Earlier this month it issued a statement that the “safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority. 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.”
Even though the meat processing plants — and their surrounding communities — have become hot spots for coronavirus in the nation, President Donald Trump last month issued an order that they remain open, or reopen even if they were shut down because of alarming rates of COVID-19. Some 17 of 40 closed plants are now operating again.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is clamoring for more openings. “Keeping these facilities operational is critical to the food supply chain and we expect our partners across the country to work with us on this issue,” he said in a statement earlier this month.
Union officials have criticized the USDA for providing inadequate protection to inspectors as COVID-19 has spread throughout the plants.
The health situation in the plants has become a flashpoint, both for the workers and for the communities where the plants are located.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) last week defended his decision to no longer report COVID-19 cases at specific plants — only an aggregate number for all operations in the state. Initially he claimed the change was to protect workers’ privacy — even though names were never released. A few day later, he said it was because the numbers weren’t reliable.