World's COVID-19 total tops three million cases, US food processing plants become COVID-19 hot spots

April 28, 2020

The global COVID-19 total passed three million cases, and with trends in flux in different parts of the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general warned that the pandemic is far from over.

It took just 12 days for the pandemic total to soar from two million to three million. Though much of the recent rise in cases is related to brisk activity in the United States, outbreaks are accelerating in other parts of the world, such as Russia and South America.

The global total stands at 3,057,957 infections in 185 countries, with 211894 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard. the US is nearing one million COVID-19 cases, with 988,469 infections, including US 56,253 deaths.

At a media telebriefing, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said that, as new cases in Europe decline and countries scale back their lockdowns, the WHO recommends finding, isolating, testing, and treating every case and tracing all contacts to ensure that outbreak declines continue.

"But the pandemic is far from over," he said "WHO continues to be concerned about the increasing trends in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and some Asian countries." And he warned that in many regions, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are underreported because nations don't have enough testing capacity.

Tedros also said the WHO is worried about the pandemic's secondary effects on other groups, such as children who face interruptions in routine vaccination programs against other diseases and populations at risk for malaria who may be affected by delays in public health measures, such as prophylactic treatment, to keep disease levels low.

In another WHO development, health officials over the weekend clarified its recent scientific brief about "immunity certificates" and antibody testing. On Twitter, the WHO said it expects that most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will develop an antibody response that provides some level of protection.

"What we don't yet know is the level of protection or how long it will last," the WHO said. "We are working with scientists around the world to better understand the body's response to COVID-19 infection. So far, no studies have answered these important questions."

At a briefing, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, said studies are also under way to assess the accuracy of the antibody tests, many of which have recently entered the market.

Over the weekend several meat and cheese processing plants across the country closed in light of COVID-19 infections among employees, prompting the head of Tyson Food to declare that the food supply chain in the US is breaking. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, took out a full-page ad in several newspapers, explaining that processing plant closures lead to tremendous food waste and a potential shortage of meat products across the country.

"Millions of animals—chickens, pigs and cattle—will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities," Tyson wrote. "The food supply chain is breaking." Last week, Tyson closed a pork-processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa—one of the nation's biggest—after 180 employees tested positive for COVID-19. Late last week, the company announced it would test all 2,800 plant workers for the novel virus.

Early in April, Tyson also closed a plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, for two weeks after hundreds of employees were infected, including two fatally. Iowa has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases within the past week, and recorded 349 new cases today, according to the Des Moines Register. The state has a total of 5,868 COVID-19 cases and 127 deaths.

According to the Associated Press, about 25% of the nation’s meat packing plants have been shuttered within the last two weeks.

In Illinois, Smithfield shut down two plants after refusing to comply with local health orders. According to WBEZ Chicago, Smithfield has had to close plants in Cudahy, Wisconsin, Martin City, Missouri, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after workers tested positive for the virus.

A plant belonging to JBS in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is now the site of that state's largest linked outbreak, the Green Bay Press Gazette reports. JBS Packerland, a beef plant, is the site of 189 cases of COVID-19, and Brown County, where the plant is located, had 776 cases. In Fort Morgan, Colorado, Leprino Foods shut down a cheese processing plant yesterday after a high number of employees tested positive for the virus. A JBS beef plant in Greely, Colorado was closed for nine days earlier this month, after hundreds of workers also contracted the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new safety guidance for employees and employers of meat and poultry processing plants. As part of the nation's critical infrastructure, workers at plants may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, as long as they are asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them, the CDC said.

The CDC said workers often work close to one another on processing lines, stand together for long 10-12 hours shifts, and have high contact in the community outside of work. The CDC recommends plants look at physical distancing in the work space, installing plexiglass barriers where possible, and increase air ventilation systems. The CDC also recommends employees wear cloth facial coverings.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reportedly dealing with the fallout of faulty antibody tests, after 120 manufacturers and labs brought the tests to American markets without an agency review, according to Politico.

Antibody tests have been hailed as the key to reopening states, and necessary with a virus that features asymptomatic transmission. But reports of widespread false positives and negatives in New York and California, two states that have started using antibody tests more widely, have led to criticism of the FDA for not overseeing the tests more closely. The FDA said it is close to finalizing a plan that would require makers of new antibody tests to apply for emergency use authorizations.

CIDRAP has the report.

More COVID-19 coverage HERE.