Despite Being Prioritized, Most Meatpackers Face Months-Long Wait for COVID-19 Vaccines
By Christina Stella , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Feb. 9, 2021, 5:45 a.m. ·
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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of meatpacking plants across the country have struggled to contain outbreaks. Many of the hardest-hit plants are in the Midwest and Great Plains, where the virus initially spread on crowded production lines.
Several states — including Nebraska — responded by prioritizing plant employees in their vaccine plans, and several companies are eager to secure doses for their employees. Ongoing vaccine supply issues across the country could force most workers to wait months for their turn to get the shot.
6,739 people working in meatpacking plants across the state have gotten sick, with 249 hospitalizations and 26 deaths.
Most of those cases are divided across plants owned by major "Big Four" meatpackers, including Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill. Three plant outbreaks were bad enough to warrant temporary closures: in the northeastern town of Dakota City, nearly 800 workers at a Tyson beef plant tested positive last spring. Another Tyson plant in Madison and a Cargill beef plant in Schuyler followed days later.
Lincoln Premium Poultry, based in Fremont, Nebraska, has seen around 250 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic and 2 deaths. The facility turns chickens into vacuum-sealed boneless thighs and whole rotisserie birds for Costco warehouses across the country.
According to management at the poultry plant, about 40% of its workers want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Lianila Gonzalez, who supervises the morning shift, already knows what she’s excited to do afterwards.
“I want to travel … [right] now, I can’t go to see anybody because I don't want to go into anywhere,” she said. “It’s more safe for me and my family to stay in my home.”
Once it’s safe, she’ll head to warm, sunny Houston, Texas, where she can finally visit her family. After seeing her community in Nebraska struggle with the virus — and losing her own dad to the illness — she’s confident in her decision to get the shot.
“This virus is really bad,” she explained. “I want to protect myself and the people who stay around me … and for my family and everybody ... because I'm working with a lot of people.”
Hurry up and wait
Jessica Kolterman, a senior manager, says Lincoln Premium Poultry has tried its best to plan ahead for when the vaccine comes. After the Food and Drug Administration cleared the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for use in December, the company scrambled to survey workers about whether they’d take a vaccine. Workers were also asked about their health and other risk factors.
The result was a scaled down version of what states have already designed — a tiered system based on any given person's risk.
“We've tried to put them into tiers based on a variety of criteria, among that, how close in proximity [somebody] works to others,” she recalled. “We also look at how old these individuals are.”
Now, Kolterman says she, like the rest of the country, is playing an anxious game of hurry up and wait.
“I'll get a call from the health department and they'll say, ‘We have vaccines for you,’ and it may be five, it may be 50. But we're gonna have to mobilize immediately,” she said.
That call will come from Terra Uhing, executive director of the Three Rivers Public Health Department, which covers three counties outside of Omaha, Nebraska. “I can tell you, I've got people beating on my door in every single industry trying to persuade us why they need to go first. And that isn't even up to me,” she said with a chuckle.
Employees at the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant in Fremont pose at a vaccine clinic. (Photo courtesy of Ariel Silverio)
While a handful of Lincoln Premium Poultry workers received their first doses last weekend, most will likely wait until spring to score an appointment. Many states, including Nebraska, are still trying to vaccinate other groups first before most workers. Under Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine plan, food processing workers are in line for the vaccine behind people over 65, those with certain high-risk conditions, first responders, and teachers.
Guidance about who to prioritize has been fluid at times in Nebraska, and Uhing says it can change hourly on some days.
If there were more doses, she knows exactly what she would do to speed the process along.
“I would do this in a heartbeat, I would take our vaccine and I would give more to our community partners. We would utilize more pharmacies. We would do all of that,” she said. “We’ve got to really get the communities to understand that this is not a bad rollout … this is not that we are not organized. We don't have the vaccine.”
The shortage reflects larger supply concerns across the United States. Until very recently, Uhing only had about 900 doses a week to give across three counties. In January, the department received over 11,400 calls to its offices from residents regarding the vaccine.
“We have allocated 61% to the 65 and older population going to our medical systems, so that's 550 doses,” she said. “That leaves me 350 doses a week. That's not very many.”
The department's allocation later increased to 1,300. Some offices’ allocations are even smaller. The nearby East Central District Health Department, which services communities not too far from Fremont, recently conceded they only have about 100 doses a week to distribute, with thousands of people on their waitlists.
For all the company’s eagerness, Kolterman says she’s tried not to lobby the health department too hard for vaccines. In the meantime, Lincoln Premium Poultry is hoping to convince more workers to take the vaccine once it’s available to them.
Some processors, like the megapacker JBS, are even offering bonuses to workers who get the shot. Lincoln Premium Poultry isn’t doing that, but Kolterman says the company is partnering with local health officials to provide workers with information about the vaccine, especially to hard-hit immigrant communities, where some people may be less likely to trust the safety of vaccines.
“In our group specifically, we have people who are Spanish speaking, and we have people who are Karen speaking,” she said. “And so those are two communities that we’ll focus on with our educational efforts.”
COVID-19 has particularly affected Nebraska’s Latino population, which makes up 11% of the state’s population but at least 18% of its cases. Kolterman recently advertised a community vaccination event geared toward Spanish-speaking residents over 65, and she says she was inundated with responses.
There are also some less official efforts, too, to build trust in vaccine safety. The plant has already identified several workers — management and line employees — who are willing to go to the front of the line and show that they’re excited to get vaccinated.
Steve Key, who works on the same shift as Lianila Gonzalez, says he’s been talking the vaccine up with peers who are on the fence. He even put on an impromptu skit one morning to debunk misinformation.
“If I can make a fool out of myself and convince one person that wasn't going to get it to take it, I’ll feel like I will have won,” he said.
At first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted the vaccine either. Then he encountered the virus up close, after his wife tested positive following a Thanksgiving gathering.
While she didn’t require hospitalization, he remembers she was in pretty rough shape for half of December.
“After seeing it firsthand, I don't want it,” he said. “My only question is, when is [the vaccine] going to be here?”
Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel, and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest. Follow Christina on Twitter: @c_c_stella
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