Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of meatpacking plants across the country have struggled to contain outbreaks. Many of the hardest-hit plants are in the Midwest and Great Plains, where the virus initially spread on crowded production lines.

Several states responded by prioritizing plant employees in their vaccine plans, and several companies are eager to secure doses for their employees. Ongoing vaccine supply issues across the country could force most workers to wait months for their turn to get the shot.

In Nebraska, 6,739 people working in meatpacking plants have gotten sick, with 249 hospitalizations and 26 deaths.

Most of those cases are divided across plants owned by major meatpackers, including Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill. Some outbreaks were bad enough to warrant temporary closures: in the northeastern town of Dakota City, nearly 800 workers at a Tyson beef plant tested positive last spring, forcing the facility to close for cleaning.

Lincoln Premium Poultry, based in Fremont, Nebraska, has seen around 250 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic and 2 deaths. The facility turns chickens into vacuum-sealed boneless thighs and whole rotisserie birds for Costco warehouses across the country.

According to management at the poultry plant, about 40% of workers want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Lianila Gonzalez, who supervises the morning shift, is eager to get the shot and already knows what she’s excited to do afterwards.

Jessica Kolterman, a senior manager, says Lincoln Premium Poultry has tried its best to plan ahead for when the vaccine comes. After the Food and Drug Administration cleared the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for use in December, the company scrambled to survey workers about whether they’d take the shot. Workers were also asked about their health and other risk factors.

The result was a scaled down version of what states have already designed — a tiered system based on a worker’s risk.

“We've tried to put them into tiers based on a variety of criteria, among that, how close in proximity [somebody] works to others,” she recalled. “We also look at how old these individuals are.”

Now, Kolterman says she, like the rest of the country, is playing an anxious game of hurry up and wait.

Read the full article about meatpackers getting COVID-19 vaccine by Christina Stella at Harvest Public Media.