By Dr. Michael Payne, UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and Director, CDQAP

In California and across the nation COVID-19 infections have affected the animal ag workforce. In June, a poultry processing plant in Livingston was forced to shut down after 358 employees tested positive and eight workers died. Three deaths occurred in December and January at a separate Fresno poultry plant. Cal/OSHA has issued citations to at least eight of the state’s meat packing plants for failure to take required steps to prevent COVID-19 infection in the workplace. The state’s dairy industry has also been affected. More than a dozen outbreaks of coronavirus infection have been reported on California dairies, prompting producers to seek guidance from public health agencies, trade organizations and processor staff.

New Cal/OSHA Standards – Newly revised Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) require that farm management notify the local public health department within 48 hours of an outbreak, which is defined as three or more employees having either a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19 within a 14-day period. Management must also notify all employees who may have had COVID-19 exposure within one business day. Testing must be offered to any employee potentially exposed. Management must exclude from the workplace employees who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or those who have had exposure.

Business Continuity – Cal/OSHA’s standards could potentially lead to significant labor challenges on a dairy by requiring home quarantine of every “exposed” employee for ten days, regardless of their COVID test status. Exposure is defined as an employee being within six feet of a COVID-19 positive person for at least 15 minutes during a 24-hour period, regardless of whether either were wearing masks. Not all dairy employees may require testing or quarantine depending on their work area: parlor vs. feeding vs. calf raising. Cal/OSHA’s rules are complex, but Western United Dairies has developed an excellent flowchart that explains them.

Fortunately, local health departments and Cal/OSHA have some latitude in implementation of the response. Dairy employers can request a waiver or modification for quarantine/isolation requirements if implementation would create an undue risk to public health and safety. For public health officials unfamiliar with dairy operations it may be useful for a dairy operator to engage their dairy trade group or human resources representative to explain animal health and welfare imperatives and environmental safety issues while negotiating an effective outbreak response.

Vaccine Availability – During January and February, California will be moving into Phase 1B (Tier One), which includes food and agricultural workers. This tier puts dairy workers in the same category for availability as persons 65 years and older, fire and police first responders, teachers, and childcare workers. The logistics of vaccinating California’s 3.5 million food and ag workers, however, mean that the process may be prolonged and vary in different locations. Vaccine availability is constantly changing, and California residents should check the state’s vaccination homepage frequently.

Vaccine Safety – Over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the United States, with no deaths or long-term disability thus far having been attributed to it. Most people receiving the vaccine will experience a local injection-site reaction (soreness or swelling) or fatigue or headache for approximately one day. Perhaps one in 100,000 people vaccinated may experience an allergic reaction similar to an anaphylaxic reaction to a bee sting. The vast majority of patients experiencing anaphylaxis have a pre-existing history of significant allergic reactions. Such a reaction is typically managed with a single administration of epinephrine. This is why CDC recommends people remain at the vaccination clinic for 15 to 30 minutes after receiving the vaccine.

Vaccine Hesitancy – In spite of the COVID vaccine’s remarkable safety track record, there are a surprising number of front-line workers who are hesitant or refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine when offered. A recent survey showed a similar distrust of the vaccine specifically among farmworkers. In general, vaccine hesitancy is higher among rural, black, and Latino communities. A number of agencies and organizations are ramping up COVID-19 vaccination information campaigns in an attempt to address vaccine hesitancy.

Mandatory Vaccine Policy – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) advises that exceptions must be made for employees who do not wish to be vaccinated for medical or sincere religious reasons. The EEOC advises that it must be determined if reasonable accommodation can be made for them that help keep other employees safe. Because mandatory vaccination is a complex issue with potential liability, producers may consider obtaining legal guidance before implementing a mandatory vaccine policy.

Life After Vaccine – Because it is unknown how much a vaccinated but exposed person will be able to spread the virus, Cal/OSHA’s ETS standards, including masks and social distancing, will likely remain in force, at least until the epidemic is brought under control. Another reason to encourage employees to remain vigilant is that protection doesn’t even start emerging until at least 12 days after first vaccination. Lastly, the first dose of the vaccine doesn’t provide the 95% protection that is only seen two weeks after the second (booster) shot. The recommended interval between the priming dose and the booster dose is 21 days for the Pfizer vaccine and 28 days for the Moderna vaccine.

For more detailed information producers can visit CDQAP’s COVID-19 and Dairy Worker Safety webpage.