What Can Population Data Teach Us About Nebraska's COVID-19 Hot Spots?

May 6, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·

A screenshot of the state DHHS COVID-19 map from May 5, 2020.

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Nebraska counties with a high percentage of the workforce in meat processing have the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state. Demographic data may shed some light on other possible reasons these communities are hot spots for the virus.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated 60% of Lexington residents and 12% of Lincoln residents do not speak English. It has been updated after confirming the accurate information with data experts. We regret the error.

Meatpacking plants across the country are under a lot of pressure. At least 588 plant workers in Nebraska have been infected with COVID-19, and at least two have died.

State officials, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, say higher rates of the virus in these communities can be attributed to other factors.

"A lot of times you’ve got a lot of people in a household, multiple generations, and it’s even difficult to socially isolate in those households," Ricketts said in the most recent COVID-19 Town Hall on NET's Speaking of Nebraska.

The average household size is slightly higher in communities with a lot of cases, like Grand Island, compared to communities with lower rates, like Lincoln.

But other factors have much bigger differences. In Lincoln, for example, about 5% of residents have difficulty speaking English — compared to 32% in Lexington.

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For a more detailed analysis, we turned to David Drozd, a Research Coordinator at the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"The data does have limits, but there are some things that indicate, there could be some types of relationships here," he said.

Drozd looked at demographic data for Nebraskans employed as “Butchers and other meat, poultry, and fish processing workers.”

He found quite a few of the households had more than one person working in that industry. And they had an average of 3.8 persons per household, higher than the statewide average of 2.4 persons per household.

The data also shows 61% of meat processing workers in the state are Latino, and just under 19% are white.

Drozd says the data provides dozens of opportunities to identify unique characteristics in communities with COVID-19 outbreaks.

For the reason why these places might be having outbreaks, there'd be a lot of different factors that could go into that," he said. "Including the amount of social distancing or just kind of how the spread occurred."

So while the data is useful context, it can’t determine the cause of an outbreak – it can only show there’s likely a connection.