American packers slow to vaccinate

CHICAGO, Ill. (Reuters) — COVID-19 vaccines are making their way into the arms of American meat and agriculture workers, but companies and union officials say progress needs to be faster after coronavirus outbreaks idled slaughterhouses and sickened thousands of workers.

Vaccinating food workers could help prevent further production disruptions that sent meat prices soaring in spring 2020 and forced retailers like Kroger Co. to restrict customers’ purchases of ground beef and other products.

Nationwide, 22,000 meat-packing workers have been infected or exposed to the virus, and 132 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International union.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee in December recommended frontline food and agriculture workers receive access to vaccines ahead of people aged 65 to 74 and younger Americans with high-risk medical conditions.

But many states prioritized older residents, who account for the majority of U.S. COVID-19 fatalities, and other essential workers such as teachers.

Companies are constrained by limited supplies and regulations in individual states and cannot purchase vaccines directly from drug makers.

“Priorities have shifted in the past two months in a range of states, and that has lowered the priority status of our critical and essential employees,” said Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Virginia-based Smithfield Foods.

South Dakota, where WH Group’s Smithfield runs a massive pork plant in Sioux Falls, may not begin vaccinating food and agriculture workers until April, according to state plans. It will first give shots to teachers, funeral home workers and people younger than 65 with underlying health conditions.

More than a third of Smithfield’s 3,700 employees in Sioux Falls had tested positive for the virus by mid-June 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

BJ Motley, president of the local UFCW union, said workers are asking when they can be vaccinated, but the company has not provided information about scheduling shots.

Smithfield said it told employees the vaccine will be distributed at the Sioux Falls plant once supplies are available.

Kim Malsam-Rysdon, South Dakota’s health secretary, said the state’s vaccine plan was developed in accordance with CDC guidelines. Vaccine allocation from the federal government is the biggest challenge facing states, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it is “again contacting governors in each state to encourage they prioritize food workers for vaccinations, as public health agencies have recommended.”

Julie Anna Potts, president of the trade group North American Meat Institute, said recently she would like the federal government to be more involved with getting vaccines to meat-packing workers.

“Unfortunately it’s just been kind of a potluck at the state level.”

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