By Auburn Robertson
From June through December 2020, a group of UNC-Chapel Hill researchers led by assistant professor of medicine Natalie Bowman, MD PMH, conducted the COVID-19 in Farm and Food industry workers in North Carolina Study: an observational study investigating the spread of COVID-19 among essential workers employed in the farming and food processing industry and their households.
According to Bowman during an online interview, the study was conducted in order “to see if there are any differences or any factors in the workplace that might affect people’s risk of having COVID”, with a specific focus on essential workers in the food processing industry since “this is often an understudied group of people.”
Researchers actively studied 224 qualifying participants from 90 different households in North Carolina from September to December of 2020, ultimately yielding unambiguous data. Participants were screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposures via weekly phone calls as well as monthly in-person visits to update the study’s questionnaires and provide clinical data through blood, saliva, and nasal swabs.
According to the Study, the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in the study population was 50%. This rate is over 5 times the average rate observed in the U.S. at the time of the data collection, despite over 75% of participants reporting using masks as well as washing their hands several times per day. Furthermore, workers in the study population who always worked in loud environments, a marker of an enclosed, busy, crowded area, had 1.70 times the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Bowman said that these statistics “show that both food production workers and their surrounding communities are both at very high risk for emerging infections like COVID or other potential pandemics … since they are working in crowded, enclosed working conditions that seemed to really make the virus take off like wildfire.”
Despite this increased risk, employees of farming and food processing facilities are considered essential workers, and, therefore, are encouraged and often expected to continue working. However, working in crowded, enclosed environments seems not only to increase the risk of infection directly for the farming and food processing workers, but also for their families at home and surrounding community.
Therefore, according to Bowman, “public health institutions need to focus on making vaccines, treatments, education materials, and prevention materials accessible and emphasized in these populations early on … because even though these workers are not front-line medical workers, they are still front-line essential workers.”
The Study provides distinct statistics that remind the public and policy makers of the gravity of one’s working conditions and of the drastic effects that essential workers’ health can have on the broader community if not prioritized.
“This isn’t the last big pandemic we are going to see,” said Bowman during an online interview. “There will be others in the future, and it is important to remember that we need to protect the highest risk groups up-front.”
To read more about the study visit: SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence and risk factors among meat packing, produce processing, and farm workers | PLOS Global Public Health
Auburn Robertson (Hometown: Raleigh, NC) is a junior Environmental Studies and Media & Journalism major. Auburn is a communications intern with the NC Collaboratory during the 2022 fall semester.