20200407_new_grandisland_kf26 (copy) (copy)

The JBS Beef packing plant in Grand Island.

The nation’s meatpacking industry must take a break. Packing plants around the country have become hot spots in the coronavirus crisis, in particular fueling dramatic increases in cases in the Heartland, as The World-Herald reported Tuesday.

In the past 10 days, South Dakota, with a 266% increase in cases; Nebraska (155%); Iowa (129%); and North Dakota (117%), account for four of the top five states in case growth. The increases are linked to packing plants, where workers must be in close quarters and where, the numbers clearly show, operators and health officials are behind the curve and playing catch-up with mitigation measures.

For example, only on Monday did Tyson operators in Madison, Nebraska, agree to work with the Elkhorn Logan Valley Health Department on testing and other steps. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ first news conference in Spanish was set for Tuesday, and health officials acknowledged that they must do a better job of translating health news and alerts into languages spoken by many packing plant workers.

“If there’s one thing that might keep me up at night, it’s the meat processing plants and manufacturing plants,” Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer said Sunday.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds outlined the tradeoff to plant closures, noting that farmers in her state provide a third of the nation’s pork supply and that if plants can’t function, producers may be forced to euthanize their hogs, affecting prices and meat supply.

Let’s be clear: Human lives are at stake, and human lives must come first.

So far loss of production from several random slaughterhouse closings has been offset by meat in cold storage, Kansas State agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor told the Associated Press. Grocers also are getting meat that would have gone to restaurants.

“You could shut multiple plants down for a day or two, and we’ve got wiggle room to handle that,” Tonsor told the AP.

A pause of three or four days, perhaps, could ensure that all possible safety measures are in place to minimize spread of the virus and reduce future plant closures.

Ricketts said Monday that Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at Nebraska Medicine, is touring plants and giving companies pointers on infection control. Let’s get that job done nationwide during a pause, so when workers return, the environment will be as safe as possible.

Closing the plants for a few days would allow the businesses and health officials to work together with intense focus to ensure that all employers are following best practices, such as putting shields between work stations, spacing them out and perhaps slowing production. The time could be used to be sure all workers have been schooled in their native languages on how to reduce risk. Screening could be become uniform and plants could be sufficiently stocked with personal protection gear.

These steps need to be voluntary — we call on the companies to do the right thing to protect their workers, the communities in which they operate and the food supply. Our elected leaders can urge these steps and of course will work with businesses to find best practices. Here’s the business case: A pause to catch up to the viral spread as much as possible should reduce the risk of more of the random, disruptive closures that are happening around the nation. Ultimately, that should reduce costs and build goodwill.

But the real goal, of course, is to minimize death. We must do all we can. This is, after all, an unprecedented emergency. Half measures on the fly are not sufficient.