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The new coronavirus has arrived at the state’s meatpacking plants. It was to be expected, perhaps, given the outbreaks at food processors in other states, but that doesn’t make the development any less ominous or challenging.
Or as The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter put it: ““The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 187 positive cases in Ford County, 80 cases in Seward County, 41 cases in Finney County and 110 cases in Lyon County. Major packing plants are located in Dodge City, Garden City and Emporia.”
The Kansas meatpacking industry employs thousands of people, and it supplies some 20% to 30% of the nation’s beef. Processing meat is a cramped, difficult business, and the environment is primed for quick and efficient transmission of the virus.
In other words, we have a complicated combination of an important industry for our nation’s food supply, coupled with working conditions that make containment difficult.
National officials should be commended for rushing additional tests to Kansas, and state officials have been on the job as well. Efforts are underway to provide temporary housing for those who must stay under observation or be quarantined.
But here’s the problem. This all might be too little, too late. Kansas ranks at the bottom of all states for the amount of coronavirus testing. That means we have little understanding of how many (or how few) people in our communities actually have the virus. That has perhaps led to complacency in recent weeks, allowing the virus to gain a foothold in new places.
That limited testing capacity also means we’re flying blind in the meatpacking plants themselves, until those additional thousands of tests are deployed. We only know part of the story right now, and it may or may not be borne out in weeks to come.
The owners of the plant have to be open and transparent with the public. They must share the information they receive about their workers, while respecting privacy concerns. They must make clear what they’re doing to mitigate risk of illness for those working right now. And they must articulate long-term plans for handling the crisis while continuing to fulfill their important part in the nation’s food supply chain.
Public health experts suspected all along that the virus would take a disproportionate toll on the least advantaged among us. We owe these workers our time and attention now.