UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Besides reducing illness, hospitalizations and deaths, the impending vaccination of heretofore unvaccinated Pennsylvania food and agricultural workers against COVID-19 can go a long way toward ensuring business continuity and stable supply chains in one of Pennsylvania‘s top economic sectors.
That’s according to Penn State experts, who say the safety and efficacy of the approved vaccines should encourage eligible food and ag workers to participate in the vaccination campaign.
As part of an expanded special initiative, state officials announced on March 12 that they would open vaccine eligibility by April 1 to several categories of frontline workers who previously were part of phase 1B of the state’s vaccine rollout. Among these newly eligible sectors are all workers in supermarkets and grocery stores; all food processing company employees, including those in meat, poultry and dairy processing, fresh fruit and vegetable packing operations, and food manufacturing; and all farm workers, operators and managers, including at urban agriculture operations.
Starting March 31, these workers now are eligible to schedule appointments at any vaccine provider to receive any of the three approved vaccines. Residents can use the state Department of Health’s Vaccine Provider Map to find the nearest provider.
The opportunity to have workers vaccinated can help these industry sectors avoid the kind of shutdowns and supply bottlenecks that plagued the meat and dairy industries during the early months of the pandemic, contends David Swartz, Penn State Extension assistant director for animal systems programs.
In 2020, meat plant closures caused a backlog of animals waiting to be processed, and some dairy producers had to dump milk when the pandemic closed schools and restaurants, reducing demand. These disruptions rippled throughout the food system, Swartz pointed out.
“This vaccination initiative will add an extra layer to worker safety, and anytime you increase worker safety, you increase the stability of the output of a plant,” he said. “That’s good news for the producer who’s counting on animals that are scheduled to move to a processing plant at a certain time.”
In the end, producers and consumers both end up bearing the brunt of COVID-related turmoil in food supply chains, Swartz explained. “That’s why we are pleased about anything that increases stability in the system, because it avoids the significant costs caused by these disruptions.”
Major processing plants have implemented COVID-mitigation measures and now basically are back to normal operations, Swartz said, but the pandemic’s impact still is being felt strongly by small-scale meat processors.
“During the pandemic, many people have been looking for local sources of dietary protein, and that has put a lot of pressure on small-scale meat processors to keep up with demand,” he said. “Many locally owned butcher shops are scheduling appointments a year in advance to process animals — which is unheard of — and that doesn’t seem to be tapering off.”
As with other facets of society, getting the food and agricultural industries back to some semblance of normal will require widespread COVID-19 vaccination, according to Troy Sutton, assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Sutton said all of the approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, but as with any vaccine, patients may experience side effects that typically are mild, such as soreness at the injection site and fever or aches lasting 1-2 days.
The only way to significantly reduce transmission in the population, he explained, is to block person-to-person spread, and vaccination combined with masking and social distancing will achieve this goal. He advised that even individuals who previously tested positive for COVID-19 should get vaccinated to boost immunity.
While there have been documented instances of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from infected humans to pets, such as cats and dogs, he emphasized that COVID-19 is not a farm-animal health issue, noting that current evidence suggests that COVID does not readily infect agricultural species such as chickens, pigs and cattle.
“However, the recent variants of SARS-CoV-2 are showing a propensity to infect mice, while the original strain did not,” Sutton said. “So it is possible that as the virus continues to evolve, there could be a possibility that other species could be infected.”
Sutton strongly encourages agricultural workers to get vaccinated to help prevent any potential spread to agricultural species. “But most importantly, because many food and agricultural workers often spend a lot of time together, sometimes in close proximity, getting vaccinated will protect not just themselves but also their co-workers, families and friends,” he said.
Swartz added that an efficient food and agricultural sector, from production to consumption, is critical in providing proper nutrition during a health and economic crisis.
“We need to provide high-quality food at the lowest possible cost,” he said. “And the opportunity to have agricultural workers vaccinated can help ensure we have the efficiently functioning food system that can accomplish that.”
Chuck Gill, Penn State University