The place where the virus has had the largest confirmed spread as a function of population, according to data from Johns Hopkins University is a place you probably haven’t heard of: Lincoln County, Ark. In New York City, there are 190 confirmed cases for every 10,000 residents. In Lincoln County, the rate is more than twice as high.
Why? Because it’s home to Cummins Prison, where there’s been an outbreak of the virus. Four of the five counties with the highest per capita confirmed spread of the virus are home to correctional facilities. The other three are Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Bledsoe County, Tenn., Marion Correctional Institution in Marion County, Ohio, and Pickaway Correctional Institution in Pickaway County, Ohio. (The fifth county in the top five is Rockland County, N.Y., which has a large number of cases because of its proximity to New York City.)
For weeks, activists have been pointing out the risk posed by correctional facilities. But prisons aren’t the only institutions that are spurring spikes in local per capita infection rates. So are meat processing plants.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that major meat processors had failed to protect many workers and had kept employees working in close quarters even as the virus spread. The outbreaks spurred the shutdown of 15 plants among three different companies, including Tyson Foods, reducing production significantly. The article appeared in Sunday’s paper — directly across from a Tyson Foods ad outlining the steps the company had taken and noting the threat to the country’s meat supply posed by the virus.
A number of the counties with the highest per capita infection rates are home to meat processing facilities where the virus has spread quickly. We’ve written before about Louisa County, Iowa, where the number of confirmed cases surged quickly at the beginning of April. It is home to a Tyson plant and has an infection rate of 238 cases per 10,000 residents.
Dakota County, Neb. is also home to a Tyson plant. Its infection rate is 226 cases per 10,000. Cass County, Ind. has the sixth-highest per capita infection rate at 269 cases per 10,000 residents. It’s home to a Tyson Fresh Meats plant.
As we reported on Saturday, it’s not only Tyson that has experienced outbreaks. Spikes in infections in Hall County, Neb., and Nobles County, Minn., have been driven by the virus spreading through plants operated by JBS USA.
Prisons pose a particular problem for containing the virus, since they can’t simply be closed. Meat plants, in theory, can be — but, according to President Trump, won’t be.
On Tuesday, Trump said that he would sign an order using the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open.
“We are working with Tyson, we are. We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe,” Trump said. “That will solve any liability problems where they have certain liability problems. We’ll be in very good shape.”
He later called the issue a “sort of a legal roadblock.”
It’s not clear what that wording means, but Trump’s assurance that the companies would be able to avoid “liability problems” suggests that the processing facilities will be reopened with the companies receiving protection for any legal problems that arise — presumably including new infections.
How the companies will protect workers to avoid new infections remains to be seen. The contagiousness of the virus makes such protection difficult, which, of course, is why businesses have been closed in the first place. While Trump’s order solves one problem — availability of meat — it introduces a new one in mandating that a significant vector for localized outbreaks of the virus remain in operation.
Prisons can’t close. When Trump signs the promised order, meat processing plants won’t be allowed to do so.