CROMWELL, Ky. — In the early days of the pandemic, almost everything was closed.


What You Need To Know

  • National report looks at early days of panemic and why less populated areas saw coronavirus outbreaks

  • Kentucky's meatpacking plants saw outbreaks

  • A number of factors contributed to the rise, including workers commuting long distances

  • Employee unions want workers classified as essential workers and eligible for vaccines quickly


That’s why it was more common to see outbreaks in larger cities where people live close to others. When we look back to the April and May time frame, there were rising case numbers in some of the Commonwealth’s less populated areas. A new national report sheds light on what was driving that.

While most things were closed, more Americans were buying food in bulk to have things to eat at home. That caused concerns about meat shortages. To alleviate that concern, meatpacking facilities were among the few deemed essential workplaces. The Green River District Health Department represents seven counties in Western Kentucky. As many of the Commonwealth's meatpacking facilities fall within that jurisdiction, we caught up with public health director Clay Horton. 

“We saw lots of demographic shifts throughout the course of this. Our early cases were very middle class. They were folks that had traveled and their friends and coworkers. As we moved into April, we had a large spike of cases here in our seven counties with meatpacking facilities,” Horton said. “We had a very large outbreak with Tyson in Henderson County, a large outbreak at Perdue in Ohio County, and then a smaller outbreak here in Daviess County with another meatpacking facility, Specialty Foods.”

That trend was not isolated to Western Kentucky. A report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States found as many as 1 in 12 cases of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic could be tied to outbreaks in meatpacking plants, and subsequent spread to surrounding communities. Based on how Kentucky tracks coronavirus data, we can’t pinpoint the exact percent of cases in each county that are tied to meatpacking facilities. We have the number of cases per facility, but overall case counts for a county are based on where someone lives, not where someone works. As Horton explains, many of the people who work in our meatpacking facilities travel from counties all over the region to go to work.

“Looking in April, the outbreaks in the meatpacking facilities were really driving what was happening within our community. There were many dynamics that played into that. It was fairly common for those workers to have long commutes. With those commutes, they carpooled. That was an environment where that spread really easily,” Horton said. 

He explained that the outbreak at the Tyson facility in Henderson County impacted a lot of employees who live in Daviess County. Horton also said the outbreak at Perdue in Ohio County spread to areas as far away as Bowling Green. 

“It really did have a regional impact, especially if you look back at April and May. It was a large part of what was happening in terms of COVID-19 in our community,” Horton said.

Spectrum News 1 requested the number of coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic at each meatpacking facility in the state. The numbers from Dec. 16 are as follows:

  • JBS/Swift in Jefferson County: 78 cases and 1 death
  • Perdue Farms in Ohio County: 347 cases and 1 death
  • Tyson Foods in Henderson County: 103 cases and 1 death
  • Tyson Foods in Lincoln County: 3 cases and 0 deaths
  • Specialty Food Group in Daviess County: 42 cases and 0 deaths
  • F.B. Purnell Sausage Co. in Shelby County: 8 cases and 0 deaths
  • Pilgrim's Pride in Graves County: 96 cases and 0 deaths
  • Smithfield Foods in Bell County: 4 cases and 0 deaths

Following some outbreaks, many of these facilities implemented changes to improve health and safety in the workplace. Perdue sent us a statement saying it swiftly implemented safety measures like additional sanitization, enforcement of social distancing, and installing dividers between workstations. 

Perdue denied our request to tour the facility to see the changes for ourselves. Employees at that facility are not represented by a union, so we had trouble talking to employees there.

We then reached out to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227. This union represents employees at many other meatpacking facilities in the Commonwealth. Communications specialist Caitlin Blair said many of the concerns her members had back in April still exist today.

“They are incredibly scared for their health and safety, but also for the people they love when they go home at the end of the day,” Blair said. “We hear regularly from union members who are concerned about social distancing. They are concerned about mask-wearing. They are concerned about sanitization.”

While these jobs didn’t usually pose as much of a safety risk, meatpacking plant employees became essential workers overnight. Blair says, as many are making food at home now more than ever before, many of these employers are making record profits. She wants employees to be compensated for the increased risk

“We couldn’t get our chicken and pork if we didn’t have people going to work at Tyson and JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride every single day to make sure we have those things. Yet these people are going to work with absolutely no hazard pay,” Blair said.

In addition to hazard pay, UFCW Local 227 is also pushing for its members to be included in the next round of people eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines.