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UNMC experts write playbook to help meatpackers prevent spread of coronavirus

Meatpacking plants should, whenever possible, install physical barriers on the production lines that are pumping out cuts of meat, conduct daily health screenings for workers, provide more hand sanitizer stations, require universal mask use and work on better air flow in buildings.

Those are among the recommendations in a playbook and checklist developed by University of Nebraska Medical Center disease and public health specialists to help meat plants in Nebraska and nationwide prevent and decrease the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is our top priority to protect the health of workers and their families who are braving the COVID-19 pandemic to put food on everyone’s tables,” said John Lowe, assistant vice chancellor for health security training and education at UNMC, in a Thursday press release.

Outbreaks at food and meat processing facilities have sickened workers and forced plants, including a massive Tyson beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, to temporarily shut down, threatening disruption to the food chain that sends chicken breasts, bacon and ground beef to the grocery store.

The recommendations, from the Global Center for Health Security and Center for Agricultural Safety and Health at UNMC, came after infectious disease specialists toured 10 meatpacking plants over the past two weeks across Nebraska to observe working conditions and give pointers on infection control.

“These efforts should be made an urgent public health priority because infection among worker populations could also lead to community infection, eventually affecting further spread in entire population’s health,” reads the “Meat Processing Facility COVID-19 Playbook.”

Indeed, Hall, Dawson and Dakota Counties in Nebraska — all areas with large meatpacking or manufacturing workforces — have emerged in recent weeks as major coronavirus hot spots.

Inside the plants, the playbook recommends installing dividers or plastic sheeting to separate workers on the production line and in hallways, cafeterias and crowded locker rooms where workers change clothes. Flexible absence and sick leave policies should be adopted and communicated widely so workers know they can stay home — without being penalized or fired — if they’re feeling ill.

“Unemployment and disability compensation are not adequate sick leave policies for COVID-19 for workers,” according to the guidelines.

Multilingual signs should clearly explain COVID-19 symptoms and hand-washing techniques. Many workers are immigrants or refugees, and multiple languages are spoken in many of the plants, including English, Spanish, Somali, Arabic, Karen and Nepali.

Air flow should be adjusted to circulate clean air in one direction; recirculating air may require the use of filters or ultraviolet-light sterilization. Turbulent air flow may stir up and redistribute virus particles that have landed on plant surfaces, the report said.

Bloomberg News reported that a new study out of Wuhan, China, suggests that the coronavirus may hang in the air in spaces that are crowded or lack ventilation.

While UNMC’s guidelines say masks and other personal protective equipment are a lower priority compared to other safety measures, the report still recommends that plants hand out masks, preferably surgical-style, and require that they be worn on the premises at all times. Workers must be taught how to safely remove soiled masks.

“It is highly recommended, as available, to provide employees in meat processing plants with procedure (surgical) masks due to the close contact they have with other employees and the liquid contact frequency in the work environment,” it states. “Cloth face-coverings may not provide the needed protection for these workers. Hair and beard covers provide no protection; they should not be used as an alternative for a face mask.”

The daughter of a worker at a Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete said workers were originally given hairnet-like masks to cover their face before that idea was scrapped the next day.

Large meat processors such as Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods have said they already have implemented some of these measures, like regular temperature checks and urging sick workers to stay home. Other advocacy groups have said stronger protections are needed.

The playbook says procedures must be developed for how to deal with sick workers and inform any co-workers with whom they had contact. All employees and visitors should have their temperatures checked and answer simple screening questions before entering the plant: Do you have any flu-like symptoms? Have you lost your sense of taste or smell?

The health director overseeing Hall County, home to Grand Island and a large JBS USA beef plant, has said it’s not totally clear whether workers at the plant are catching the virus from their close-quarters work or out in the community and then bringing it to work.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the outbreaks may be a “community issue” that has less to do with working conditions and more to do with workers’ lives outside the plants.

But the playbook contains clear strategies and recommendations for decreasing the spread of the virus inside the plants, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers clock in for shifts, along with suggestions for how plant operators can work with community leaders and local health departments on virus outreach and education outside the workplace.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

special report
News to start your day: G.I. mayor pleads with feds; farmers find ways to sell without markets

The latest coronavirus numbers 

Nebraska cases: 4,281

Nebraska deaths: 71

Iowa cases: 7,145

Iowa deaths: 162

U.S. cases: 1.09 million

U.S. deaths: 63,538

G.I. mayor says feds must supply more testing for essential workers

If meatpacking plants are critical infrastructure that must remain open in a pandemic, then the federal government must supply more coronavirus testing for those essential workers, the mayor of hard-hit Grand Island said.

“The federal government needs to provide the resources to assure the safety of the workers and, of course, that’s testing,” Mayor Roger Steele said in an interview Thursday.

Meatpacking workers and plants have been deemed critical by President Donald Trump to keep America’s food supply well stocked, even as coronavirus outbreaks threaten workers’ health and plant operations. Trump signed an executive order Tuesday night invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat and food production facilities open.

So Steele wants to know: Who’s going to test those workers and keep those plants up and running?

Read more.

The coronavirus crisis shows why it’s critical to support local journalism

Missing your local farmers market? You could cut out the middle man

Most farmers markets pushed back their starting dates, so instead of waiting, Mark and Michelle Brannen, owners of Benson Bounty, have been bringing their produce straight to the customer.

For them and many other small-scale farmers, social media has been a crucial ingredient in their new game plan.

The Brannens are taking advantage of their central Omaha location and relationships made at past farmers markets to keep their business going.

“Through social media, we reached out, people sent us an email and we have them on the list,” Mark Brannen said. “They pull up, and we have the produce in a tote ready for them.”

For some micro farmers already involved in direct sales through community-supported agriculture, delays in the opening of farmers markets have been a boon. More people are buying shares of their harvest. Many sold out quickly.

Read more.

Religious leaders share safety guidelines for in-person services

Some houses of worship won't open at all when restrictions are eased Monday but instead will continue to serve their congregants online.

Guidance developed by religious leaders was for reopening places of worship after weeks of restrictions was released Thursday.

That guidance includes that "family groups" should sit 6 feet apart from others and bring their own hymnals and sacred books. Doorknobs, seats and restrooms should be sanitized between services, and there should be no passing of collection baskets from person to person or shaking or holding of hands. Also, no doughnuts and coffee after services, and no receiving lines at scaled-down weddings and funeral services.

In Omaha, Salem Baptist Church, Beth El Synagogue and the Millard Islamic Foundation haven't even begun to talk reopening dates.

Read more.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

State took extra step to ensure TestNebraska data stays private, calls possibility of misuse 'slim'

LINCOLN — The State of Nebraska added an extra clause to its contract with four Utah firms in an effort to ensure that personal data provided to the state’s coronavirus testing initiative, TestNebraska, remains private, a review of the contracts indicates.

That extra clause — a paragraph that wasn’t included in similar contracts with Utah or Iowa — says that the data collected on testnebraska.com is confidential and owned by the state and that the firms, in Utah’s so-called Silicon Slope, cannot use even anonymous or aggregate data for business purposes.

“We want people to know that we’re going to take every step to protect their privacy,” said Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts.

A state lawyer who helped draw up the contract with Nomi Health and three other companies called the chances of Nebraskans’ personal data being disclosed or misused “very, very slim.”

“That’s a remote possibility in my mind,” said Amara Block, general counsel for the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services.

Concerns about privacy and data protection have been raised in the wake of the governor’s April 21 announcement that he was signing a no-bid, $26.9 million contract with a group of companies to accelerate COVID-19 testing in Nebraska by collecting data and providing 540,000 test kits. Neighboring Iowa signed a similar contract on the same day.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said she’s fielded a lot of questions from constituents about whether their personal data will be sold by the private firms hired by Nebraska. She also questioned whether the state had been totally transparent about the contracts, which weren’t shared with state lawmakers until six days after they were announced.

“I think that (the governor) took this contract because it was convenient. This company acted the fastest,” Hunt said. She also asked whether any Nebraska firms had been offered the lucrative contract.

The World-Herald obtained and reviewed the contracts, asking a law professor who specializes in contracts to look at the privacy protections.

Edward Morse, a professor at the Creighton University School of Law, said that one clause in the service agreement with Domo, a software firm involved in the contract, allows it to use “de-identified” and aggregate data to improve its product and deliver “benchmarks and similar reports.”

But Morse said that clause doesn’t present “a significant personal privacy concern” because the data allowed to be retained can’t be traced back to any one individual.

Still, the professor said that any time data is collected by the government, concerns are raised about how that data will be used and the possibility of “unintended consequences,” such as the information being acquired by hackers or mistakenly released.

“There are privacy concerns every time the state undertakes an effort to collect personal information, including medical information, from its citizens,” Morse said.

Ricketts administration officials, interviewed Tuesday, emphasized that privacy was “top of the mind” in signing the contracts, which led to adding the extra clause. They said the Utah companies can only use the data internally to improve their services.

“That data belongs to us,” said Matt Miltenberger, the governor’s chief of staff. “They cannot provide their data to anyone else.”

Ricketts, during his daily briefings, has said the medical data people provide will not be sold or shared. He’s encouraged Nebraskans, as a “civic duty and personal responsibility,” to log onto the website so they can get in line to be tested, and so the state can get a clearer picture of the extent of infections. So far, about 104,000 Nebraskans have taken the online assessment, though the number of new applicants has slowed in recent days.

The coronavirus crisis shows why it’s critical to support local journalism

Nebraska, like many states, had struggled to obtain the proper equipment and chemicals to perform COVID-19 tests.

“We have been looking for a way to expand testing quickly for the past several weeks now,” Ricketts said in announcing the contract. “We felt this was the company that was able to deliver that the fastest.”

At the time, Nebraska was performing between 600 and 800 coronavirus tests a day, so adding 3,000 more a day — as the Utah group pledged to do within five weeks — represented a tremendous improvement, the governor said. On Wednesday, Ricketts said testing has increased to about 1,000 to 1,200 a day.

Additional testing, the governor said, is key to allowing the state to target those who are infected with the virus and need to isolate, rather than asking the entire state to stay home.

Miltenberger said the Utah group was the only entity he was aware of in the country that could perform all the tasks necessary, “from start to finish” and in large quantities.

The group, which has already been doing testing in Utah, also had the hard-to-obtain reagents and machines to analyze the tests, he said. Nebraska, like many states, has been struggling, with little success, to obtain them.

“If there was a Nebraska company that could do this, we would have loved to talk to them,” Miltenberger said, adding that the administration is regularly reaching out to local labs about testing.

Gage, the governor’s spokesman, said the tremendous workload in dealing with the coronavirus crisis led to the delay in sharing the contracts with state senators.

Officials with the Utah firms, at an April 21 press conference, said they had leveraged their contacts with other companies, including those in China and Germany, to “circumvent” the logistics logjam and obtain the needed testing supplies and equipment.

The launch of TestNebraska is behind schedule, according to the 12-page contract with Nomi Health. The first two testing sites — to be staffed by the Nebraska National Guard — were initially to open by Thursday. Now they are scheduled for a soft opening on Monday in Omaha and Grand Island.

The contract also called for an initial 30,000 test kits to be delivered by Tuesday, and for automated extraction equipment and four polymerase chain reaction machines — which amplify molecular material so it can be analyzed — to be fully operational by then.

But Gage said those were general “ballpark” projections. Ricketts said the state was still setting up equipment provided under the contract.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Small-scale farmers take advantage of social media, customer relationships to keep their businesses going

Matt Wettengel

Kristen Beck

Benson Bounty used to rely on farmers markets for 60% of its business.

Then the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing forced a change in strategy.

Most farmers markets pushed back their starting dates, so instead of waiting, Mark and Michelle Brannen have been bringing their produce straight to the customer.

"We've gotten such a tremendous response," Mark Brannen said.

For them and many other small-scale farmers, social media has been a crucial ingredient in their new game plan.

The Brannens are taking advantage of their central Omaha location and relationships made at past farmers markets to keep their business going.

"Through social media, we reached out, people sent us an email and we have them on the list," Mark Brannen said. "They pull up and we have the produce in a tote ready for them."

After restaurants closed to eat-in dining, Logan Barr of Plum Creek Farms cut back on the number of meat chickens he was raising near Burchard, Nebraska.


If you'd like to support area farmers and farmers markets, go to buylocalnebraska.org/support. If you'd like a list of area farmers offering produce, go to buylocalnebraska.org/online-food-guide.

But sales took off after Facebook groups Omaha Food Lovers, Real Food Omaha and the Omaha Cooking Community asked if he wanted to post something about his business on their pages.

He's now delivering about 750 chickens a week throughout the Omaha and Lincoln areas and planning to add a pork option as well. Plum Creek also offers ground beef and eggs.

"The response was almost immediate," Barr said. "It's been a really big uptick for us."

For some micro farmers already involved in direct sales through community-supported agriculture, delays in the opening of farmers markets have been a boon. More people are buying shares of their harvest. Many sold out quickly.

"If you are a CSA farmer, this is a really easy transition," said Cait Caughey of Mullein Hill Farm near Mondamin, Iowa. She recently helped start a chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition for eastern Nebraska and southwest Iowa.

"You already were boxing up produce and had members. For CSA farmers, they are increasing their sales."

But despite those successes, sales for some still don't equal what they've done in the past. So people like the Brannens and Barr welcome the news that restaurants will be reopening next week and that farmers markets are gearing up, too.

One of the biggest, the Omaha Farmers Market, will open the first weekend in June, a month later than normal.

The Saturday market in the Old Market will take place in the city lot at 11th and Jackson Streets and will open June 6. The Sunday market will take place in Parking Lot 26 at Baxter Arena, starting June 7.

The Gifford Park Neighborhood Market will start May 29 with 10 booths and limit the crowd to 25 people at a time. The Papillion Farmers Market will open May 20 as a drive-thru event in the Papillion Landing parking lot, with customers ordering in advance. Rockbrook will not have a farmers market this year.

Many area farmers markets will offer food and produce only.

"Although our layouts of each market will change to accommodate social distancing and the size of the crowds will decrease due to that, we are still hopeful that the vendors will be profitable," said Kristen Beck, manager of the Omaha Farmers Market. "We are thrilled that we get to keep the markets open in a safe environment. It would have been even harder on our vendors if we didn't decide to stay open."

The Brannens plan to start with the Gifford Park Farmers Market and then see how things are going with the Omaha Farmers Market later in the summer. They also expect to pick up former customers with restaurants reopening.

Barr, who in the past mainly relied on delivering chicken to local restaurants, isn't sure if people will dive back into eating out.

He plans to continue providing chickens for establishments he has worked with for years as well as deliver to new customers. "I don't know what to expect," he said. "It's kind of uncharted territory. It's going to be different for a while."

Matt Wettengel, a market manager for Gifford Park, said it's going to be different for organizers of farmers markets, as well, as they figure out the best way to do things to keep sellers and customers comfortable and safe.

So far, as with the Omaha Farmers Market, most regular vendors are returning.

"Everybody is very eager," he said. "Everybody is kind of in agreement. Local food is more important than ever." marjie.ducey@owh.com, 402-444-1034 twitter.com/mduceyowh