On Tuesday, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow broke a story that in April, the office of the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention watered down COVID-19 guidance from CDC experts for a Smithfield Foods meatpacking plants in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was the site of one of the biggest single outbreaks in the United States. But as of publication of this article, TV news stations in the four states bordering the plant haven’t mentioned Maddow’s important reporting.
During her September 22 show, Maddow reported that CDC Director Robert Redfield’s office contacted members of a CDC team that investigated the plant and finalized their scientific report with recommendations to protect workers from the coronavirus, telling them to “recall their report, to take it back and to change the language in it, to remove anything that sounded like a real recommendation, … anything that made it seem like the meat company actually had to do something” to protect their workers. She went into detail with some examples of the changes made during her program:
So far, this travesty committed by the CDC director’s office hasn’t been covered by TV news stations in the four states which border the Smithfield plant -- South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota -- where the outbreak likely would have had the most impact. A search of the Kinetiq video database for local TV news segments in those states mentioning the CDC and the Smithfield meatpacking plant turned up no results.
Debbie Berkowitz, who works for the National Employment Law Project, appeared on the show and said that Maddow’s report is “totally stunning.” Berkowitz, a former chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, added that when she did work with the CDC on these scientific reports, she had “never seen this kind of issuing a report, taking it back, and weakening it.” Berkowitz explained that the watering down of this COVID-19 guidance “had an enormous impact in that CDC then used this watered-down guidance as the guidance for the entire industry.” She suggested that the CDC “succumbed to pressure from the industry to weaken the guidance so that the industry could keep going and making profits and not worry about workers.”
On September 24, Maddow said “multiple sources confirmed” her reporting that Redfield’s office “forced the change” to the CDC’s report, which originally contained much stronger language on steps Smithfield had to take to protect the workers at the meatpacking plant. She also suggested Redfield was dishonest during his testimony before Congress on September 23, when he denied that his office was in contact with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before the scientific report was changed.
These weakened recommendations came after the COVID-19 disaster started at the plant and may have contributed to the spread of the disease throughout the meatpacking industry, which suffered more than 17,000 infections and 91 deaths in April and May. As the Rapid City Journal reported, an August report from the CDC detailed that the disease “spread rapidly” among employees at the plant between March and April, particularly among workers on the production lines.
The lead CDC researcher on the project, Jonathan Steinberg, updated South Dakota reporters on the study in a call Thursday morning. Steinberg said the CDC analysis shows “COVID-19 spread rapidly” among Smithfield employees.
“In less than three weeks, the number of identified COVID-19 cases increased from one to more than 300,” Steinberg said. “In a total of five weeks, the number of cases surpassed 900. This report highlights potential for rapid spread of (coronavirus) among employees in meat and poultry processing facilities.”
At the outbreak’s peak, an average of 67 cases occurred each day. 48 people were hospitalized, including 39 employees and nine close contacts, with the median age of hospitalized patients for both groups at 60 and 64 years old, respectively. Two employees died: Augustin Rodriguez and Craig Franken.
Attack rates were highest among department groups where employees worked in close proximity, less than six feet apart on production lines.
On September 16, The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting determined that this single meatpacking plant “had the second-largest reported outbreak in the country” by early September. OSHA’s first COVID-19-related fine was also for this specific plant for failing to protect workers after at least 1,294 of them fell ill and four died. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called the fine, a paltry $13,494, insulting.
As long as the TV stations in the areas surrounding the plant in Sioux Falls fail to inform their viewers about the role President Donald Trump's CDC director may have played in a major local outbreak, they will continue to do their viewers a huge disservice.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for the broadcast affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting Co. in all television markets that serve South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota for any of the terms “smithfield,” “meatpacking,” “meat,” or “plant” in close proximity of any of the terms “CDC” or “Centers for Disease Control” from September 22 through 25, 2020.