Was there any way to prevent the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota from becoming one of the country’s largest known coronavirus clusters, with more than 700 workers infected? It’s hard to know “what could have been done differently,” a Smithfield spokesperson said, given what she referred to as the plant’s “large immigrant population.”
“Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” she explained.
On April 10, Michael Bul Gayo Gatluak, a 22-year-old immigrant from South Sudan, clocked in at the hog kill department on the sixth floor. His job requires him to stand for hours on a platform “really, really close” to other workers along the production line where pig carcasses are chopped. “The job is so heavy,” he said. “You have to breathe so hard.” When he got home that night, he started feeling ill. He said he tested positive for COVID-19 three days later. “With how we work on the line, I would say I got sick because of them not taking safety measures,” Gatluak told BuzzFeed News. “When they had their first case, I don’t think they acted accordingly.”
The plant is now closed indefinitely, cutting the country off from about 5% of its national pork supply. With 725 confirmed cases among workers and 143 more traced to them, the Smithfield outbreak has eclipsed most of the country’s worst-hit nursing homes and prisons among the largest community outbreaks.