Half of Covid-positive workers in meat plant were asymptomatic, reports show

Briefing documents also say outbreak at one plant was associated with almost 300 cases

An estimated half of Covid-positive workers in a single large Irish meat plant were found to be asymptomatic following mass testing, according to briefing documents. File photograph: Bloomberg

An estimated half of Covid-positive workers in a single large Irish meat plant were found to be asymptomatic following mass testing, according to briefing documents. File photograph: Bloomberg

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An estimated half of Covid-positive workers in a single large Irish meat plant were found to be asymptomatic following mass testing, according to briefing documents given to the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).

The documents suggest that asymptomatic workers could have been a significant driver of infection in meat plants.

“Where mass testing has been undertaken, it is noted that there are high numbers of asymptomatic cases,” one report notes.

“Following mass testing in one large facility, it is estimated that 50 per cent of positive workers were asymptomatic. [This] could be an important factor in meat processing plants.”

The briefing documents, which were drawn up in early June, also show that there were almost 300 cases of Covid-19 associated with an outbreak in a single meat processing plant in the State, more than twice the figure associated with the next largest outbreak.

One report, which was shared with Nphet on June 3rd, outlines a series of risk factors in plants, including poor language skills, crowded accommodation, and the potential for spread to spouses or housemates who “are often similarly vulnerable workers in nursing homes, supermarkets, etc.

“Communication difficulties represent a significant threat to outbreak control. This is driven by language barriers. It was also noted that in at least one plant, levels of literacy in some workers’ own principal language were low.”

It notes that “many staff are low-wage workers and some may reside in overcrowded accommodation”.

Infection figures

The second document, shared with Nphet on June 10th, shows up-to-date figures as of the previous day on infection across 22 different plants.

It shows the facilities had recorded some 1,104 cases between them. Ten of these plants were in the HSE’s North Eastern division, three in the midlands, three in HSE Mid West, two each in the HSE’s east and west divisions, and a single outbreak in each of the south and southeast divisions.

The report shows that while there was significant Covid-19 infection among meat plant workers, many did not have severe symptoms of the disease, noting that “the vast majority of patients have been able to remain in the community during the course of their illness, with only 2.8 per cent requiring admission to hospital”.

Eight such patients required admission to intensive care, just 0.7 per cent of the total number who fell ill with the disease, according to the report. It shows the population affected were primarily younger men, with 58.1 per cent of the cases in question occurring in those aged between 25 and 44, and 77.4 per cent of all cases in men.

Both this report, and the earlier version sent to Nphet on June 3rd, were shared with the Oireachtas special committee on the Covid-19 response last week.

Confidentiality

The June 3rd report, which was compiled by the HSE’s National Outbreak Control Team, outlines a series of “challenges [in] maintaining confidentiality of results following mass testing”.

The challenges, the report states, emerged from the need to seek “co-operation from facility owners and managers, especially with regard to circumstances requiring prompt action such as identification of large numbers of asymptomatic positive employees, who need to be excluded from work rapidly and their contacts traced”.

It notes that “on occasion employers or managers may have been informed [of test results] in advance of the individual”.

“This only occurred where it was necessary and desirable for preventing the spread of infection where timeliness was paramount,” it said.

The practice of sharing workers’ test results with employers was controversial when it emerged in May, with the HSE saying that it had done this only in exceptional circumstances. The HSE suspended this practice in May.

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