Coronavirus hotspots at meatpacking plants – especially in the Midwest – are a major source of COVID-19 in most of the rural counties with the worst infection rates.

Fourteen of the 25 counties with rural America’s highest infection rates link the spread of the virus back to food-processing facilities. Prison and nursing homes were the other major sources of infections in the 25 rural hotspot counties.

The Daily Yonder calculated the infection rate for the nation’s 1,977 rural counties. For the 25 rural counties with the highest rates of coronavirus infection, The Daily Yonder searched local and state news sources for reports on those counties.

The list shows various information about the 25 counties, including the names of meatpacking companies, prisons and nursing homes that journalists and public health officials cited in local reports as major parts of the local infection rate.

Multinational food-processing corporations account for nearly all the meatpacking hotspots:

  • Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest meat processor, has operations in five of the hotspot counties.
  • National Beef, a Missouri-based company whose majority owner is the Brazilian food company Marfrig, has operations in three of the counties.
  • Brazilian-owned JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, has plants in two counties.
  • Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods has plants in two counties.
  • And Cargill, a privately owned international food conglomerate based in Minnesota, has plants in two counties.

Prisons were the next most frequently cited source of infection in rural hotspot counties.

Tennessee led the list of states with rural hotspots linked to prisons. In Lake County in northwest Tennessee, all but seven cases of the county’s 401 COVID-19 cases stemmed from the Northwest Correctional Complex, a state prison. Also in Tennessee, Bledsoe County’s high infection rate stemmed primarily from COVID-19 cases at the state’s Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.

(A Tennessee state prison is also the cause of Trousdale County’s infection rate, which is the highest in the U.S. Trousdale County is officially located within Nashville’s metropolitan statistical area, so it doesn’t appear on our list of rural hotspot counties.)

High infection rates in rural counties stemming from nursing homes clustered in the South. Southwest Georgia has two rural counties – Early and Randolph – where nursing homes are a major part of high infection rates. A third county in the region, Calhoun, was in the top-25 rural counties with the highest infection rates over the weekend but was replaced by a meatpacking county when we recalculated infection rates based on Sunday’s data.

The high infection rate in McKinley County, New Mexico, is an outlier in the general pattern. There, high rates of infection among members of the Navajo Nation have hit the county hard. News coverage also indicates that the county is on an interstate corridor and is a market hub.

One county remains on the top 25 from the earliest days of the pandemic in rural America. The infection rate in Blaine County, Idaho, resulted from travelers visiting ski resorts. Resort counties were early hotspots in U.S. infections, but all but Blaine County have dropped off the top-25 list.

This article was originally published by The Daily Yonder. 

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