Dr. Michael Payne.

As in other states the COVID-19 epidemic has affected animal agriculture in California. A poultry processing plant in Livingston was forced to shut down in June 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 measures to prevent COVID-19 infection in the workplace.  

The California dairy industry, while largely spared the catastrophic outbreaks experienced in packing plants, 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. What follows is information collected specifically for California dairy farmers.

Highlights: What You Need to Know about COVID-19 and Dairy Employees.

  • There is overwhelming scientific consensus that the novel coronavirus is neither transferred from cows to humans nor through processed dairy products.
  • Routine farm inspections are continuing by Cal/OSHA, water boards and CDFA, but staff are implementing a variety of disease prevention procedures.
  • Cal/OSHA’s newly revised COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) require that farm management must notify the local public health department within 48 hours of an outbreak, defined as three or more employees with probable or confirmed cases 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 either test positive for COVID-19 or who have had exposure.
  • California’s new emergency standards regarding outbreaks are complex. A flow-chart developed by Western United Dairies details the process. Local health departments and Cal/OSHA have some latitude in implementation of the ETS.
  • Dairy employers can request a waiver or modification for quarantine/isolation requirements if implementing them would create an undue risk to public health and safety. For public health officials unfamiliar with dairy operations it may be useful to engage dairy trade group or human resources representatives to explain animal care and welfare imperatives and environmental safety as an effective outbreak response is negotiated.
  • Dairies must have a written COVID-19 prevention plan describing a risk assessment for all work areas and tasks, worker training and mitigation measures to include face masks, to worn when a physical distance of at least 6 feet can’t be maintained.
  • 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.
  • Well over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the United States with no deaths or serious disability reported. Perhaps ten in one million people being vaccinated will experience an allergic reaction which is easily managed with a single administration of epinephrine. Most people receiving the vaccine will experience a local injection-site reaction (soreness or swelling) or fatigue or headache for approximately one day.
  • Vaccine hesitancy is higher in rural, black and Latino communities. Some companies have paid reluctant workers to receive the vaccine.
  • The S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises that exceptions must be made for employees who do not wish to be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. It must be determined if reasonable accommodation can be made for them. Producers may consider obtaining legal guidance before implementing a mandatory vaccine policy.

COVID-19 and Food Safety

Some dairy customers, neighbors and others may have questions. There is reassuring science explaining how typical dairy food safety precautions eliminate the virus. Iodine levels in teat-disinfectants, chlorine levels in CIP systems and of course pasteurization temperatures all inactivate the virus. These are just some of the reasons that the FDA, CDC and the European Food Safety Agency all say there is no evidence that COVID-19 virus is transmitted by food or food packaging. Additionally, it’s also useful for our customers to know that animal coronaviruses aren’t transferred between livestock and humans. Cattle cannot contract and transmit the COVID-19 virus to people any more than your dog could give you the canine coronavirus that causes the common “kennel cough”.

Employee Travel

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has unequivocally identified agriculture as part of the state’s critical infrastructure and that ag workers are exempt from work & travel restrictions. The Department of Homeland security (DHS) similarly recognizes those producing, processing and delivering food as critical infrastructure workers with unique responsibilities and privileges. During “Stay-at-Home Orders”, some farm and processor employees have expressed concern they could be stopped, questioned and even fined while traveling to and from work. Western United Dairies has provided a document explaining and documenting an employee’s status in a critical infrastructure industry. The template is available in both English and Spanish and can be kept in the employee’s vehicle.

Regulatory Inspections & Allied Industry

CDFA – California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) food safety inspections are an essential function in ensuring a safe food supply. While CDFA will continue their routine visits to dairy farms and processing plants, inspectors will be implementing best practices to protect themselves, producers and employees. Inspectors are following all industry standards including observance of biosecurity and hygienic practices, as well as wearing any protective gear a farm requires. These same precautions are similarly being implemented for inspections of meat processing plants and slaughter facilities.

Cal/OSHA – The primary state agency with authority over agricultural workers, including dairy employees, is the State Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. A wide variety of commodities are receiving COVID-19 compliance visits, including harvesting and processing operations for fruit, nuts, vegetables, lumber and nursery plants.

Water Boards – The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, RB-5, is continuing to do both “drive-by” inspections as well as some routine scheduled inspections. RB-5 inspectors will contact producers prior to a farm inspection and will conduct them outside only in a distanced fashion. Currently they are not entering offices to review documentation.

Rendering  –  Rendering CDFA also recognizes rendering as an essential service vital to public health and safety and has provided supporting documentation for the industry.

Auction Yards – Auction markets are also considered part of agriculture’s critical infrastructure and are typically staying open for business. Individual auctions however may implement a variety of protective strategies ranging from altering café service, limiting the number of buyers or having consignors deliver livestock and return home rather than remaining at the facility. Producers with market cows should contact their auction yard beforehand for specific changes.

Dairy Employee Health

Cal/OSHA requires that a workplace-specific COVID-19 prevention plan be added to the dairy’s Illness and Injury Prevention Program (IIPP). A COVID-19 Model Prevention Program is available but can be confusing in its intricacy. Fortunately, California has provided clear guidance for COVID-19 compliance specifically for agricultural operations. In July Cal/OSHA in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), released a comprehensive guidance for employers of livestock farms addressing COVID-19 worker safety. The main document is accompanied by an abbreviated checklist summarizing the high points.

What Does Cal/OSHA Require on Dairies?

A Written COVID-19 Prevention Plan – Among other things, the plan must include a comprehensive risk assessment for all work areas and work tasks. A person responsible for implementing the plan must be designated. The COVID-19 training program should be described and employee training documented. The plan must incorporate California’s requirement for face coverings described below. The plan must be available to employees and their representatives.

Face Coverings – Agricultural operations fall under the state-wide mandate that face coverings be worn while in enclosed workspaces. Cal/OSHA currently interprets this to include breakrooms and milking parlors. Face masks need not be worn, either indoors or outdoors, when a physical distance of at least 6 feet can be consistently maintained. Employees witnessed in closer proximity than 6 feet and without face coverings may leave the producer open to a Cal/OSHA worker safety citation.

While face masks do not lead to dangerously low oxygen levels, they are uncomfortable and universally detested. Masks can, however, be remarkably effective at decreasing COVID-19 transmission. One Center for Disease Control (CDC) case history described how two Missouri hair stylists, both infected with coronavirus and having active symptoms, failed to transmit the disease to 139 clients. Both the stylists and all the clients wore masks.

Employers are required to provide (or compensate) employees for some sort of face covering. Producers may have to work with employees to determine which masks they find least objectionable. N95 masks offer the most virus protection. Masks fitted with exhalation valves may be perceived as feeling cooler and less humid, although they provide protection primarily to the wearer. Surgical masks, which are much looser and less durable, still decrease viral exposure by more than 6-fold. Workers are free to choose from a wide variety of commercial or homemade products. Some workers may only consistently wear a bandana or “gator” type of mask. While this offers the least amount of disease protection, use of these face covering should shield producers from a worker safety citation.

Hair Stylist infographic

Worker Training – Producers are required to provide worker training addressing COVID-19. Training will include COVID-19 symptoms and how to report them, actions the dairy is taking to prevent its spread, the importance of home quarantine if they develop symptoms, how employees can obtain testing and COVID-19 related benefits including paid sick-leave. A comprehensive review of California producer obligations for their employees during the epidemic was developed by Western United Dairies legal affairs team.

Perhaps the easiest way to start employee training is by using Cal/OSHA’s farm worker video, available in both English and Spanish. The video does not address recent requirements on face coverings, which will have to be covered separately. To supplement the video, Cal/OSHA’s flyer for agricultural employees (available in English and Spanish) can be handed out. UC Davis offers an outline for “tailgate” coronavirus worker training. A third method of training is signage. The Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a wide selection of posters and infographics in a variety of languages. Initially producers might consider using CDC’s Stop the Spread of Germs poster available in English and Spanish. CDFA has also provided some tips on effective COVID-19 communication to farm workers.

Screening and Physical Distancing – Cal/OSHA requires temperature screening and/or symptom reporting. Such screening can be performed either at home by the employee or at the dairy. Employees may self-certify that they are symptom-free at the beginning of each shift. Employees must be encouraged to stay home when feeling ill, an action supported by a CDC poster in English and Spanish. Producers may consider staggering work meetings or meal breaks to help maintain worker distancing of at least 6 feet. Independent contractors, delivery personnel, and regulatory staff are subject to the same distancing and face covering requirements as employees. Employees may actually be at more risk of infection at home than they are at work. CDC offers guidance for extended, multi-generational families living in the same household in both English and Spanish.

Sanitation, Cleaning and Disinfection – Fortunately producers already comply with Cal/OSHA and CDFA requirements ensuring that bathrooms and hand-washing facilities are readily accessible, clean, and stocked with soap and single-use towels. Additional handwashing or hand-sanitizing stations can be located to encourage employee use when they arrive and leave work, and before and after eating. Posters in English or Spanish can be posted to remind employees to use the stations. Shared equipment should be sanitized between each use or disposable gloves should be provided. Common work areas, such as break areas should be cleaned and sanitized frequently. CDC recommends that commonly available household bleach (1/3rd cup per one gallon water) will be effective when other approved disinfectants are in short supply or prohibitively expensive. Never mix bleach with other cleaning products, especially those containing ammonia, as it can release dangerous chlorine gas.

Response to COVID-19 on the Dairy

Legal Guidance  – Cal/OSHA’s newly revised COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) could create significant labor challenges on a dairy by requiring home quarantine of every “exposed” employee for ten days, regardless of their test status. CDPH and OSHA defines a COVID-19 exposure as being within six feet of a COVID-19 positive person for 15 minutes during a 24-hour period, regardless of whether one or both of the employees were wearing masks.

Fortunately, the local health department has some latitude in implementation of the ETS and may be able to assist tailoring a testing and quarantine program for a dairy. Workers from different parts of the dairy (parlor vs. feeding vs. calf raising) may not all require testing or quarantine.

In addition, the ETS also provides that employers can request a waiver of the requirement to quarantine exposed or COVID-19 positive employees from the workplace, if doing so would create an undue risk to public health and safety. For public health officials unfamiliar with dairy operations it may be useful to engage dairy trade group or human resources representatives to explain animal care and welfare imperatives as well as environmental implications.

Initial Responsibility – If a producer becomes aware of an employee with COVID symptoms or who has tested positive for coronavirus, his first action should be to send the employee to home quarantine or to medical care. CDC has provided a flyer for employees diagnosed with COVID-19 in English and Spanish. The majority of COVID-19 patients will show only mild to moderate symptoms and can be cared for at home using CDC recommendations. As discussed above, the producer’s second action should be to consider contacting his local trade group, human resources contractor or processor for legal guidance.

Notifying Public Health – If a COVID-19 outbreak occurs on a dairy, farm management must notify the local public health department within 48 hours of an outbreak, which is defined as three or more employees with probable or confirmed cases of COVID-19 within a 14-day period. To be included in the outbreak total, all three infected employees must have used the same “work location, working area or common area used or accessed” in a 14-day period. This highlights again the advantage of engaging trade group or human resources representatives to explain circumstances to public health agency officers.

Regardless of whether or not there is an outbreak, if coronavirus infection results in hospitalization or death Cal/OSHA must be notified. The dairy’s COVID-19 Prevention Plan must describe how the local health department will be alerted. The dairy’s outbreak response should be consistent with CDPH guidance, Responding to COVID-19 in the Workplace.

Employee Rights – According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sending a sick employee home is not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. During an outbreak, the local health department can assist dairy management through the necessary testing, trace-back, and quarantine efforts.

Employers must:

  • Notify all employees who may have had COVID-19 exposure within one business day in a manner that does not reveal the COVID-19 case’s personal identifying information
  • Offer testing at no cost to any employee potentially exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, and provide applicable benefit information. The time an employee spends being tested is considered compensable hours worked.
  • Exclude from the workplace employees who either test positive for COVID-19 or employees who have had COVID-19 exposure, and follow the requirements for preserving their pay and benefits
  • Follow the return-to-work criteria for returning excluded employees to work
  • Investigate the exposure and address hazards
  • Follow all recordkeeping and reporting requirements for employee COVID-19 cases.

COVID Outbreak Flowchart – Because California’s COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards are complex, Western United Dairies developed an excellent flow chart detailing what actions are required when a dairy employee has been diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19. The flow-chart can be downloaded from here.

Importantly a local health department has some latitude in implementation of the ETS. Employers can request a waiver or modification for quarantine/isolation requirements if implementing them would create an undue risk to public health and safety. For public health officials unfamiliar with dairy operations it may be useful to engage a dairy trade group, or human resources representative to explain animal care and welfare imperatives.

COVID positive employee protocol

COVID-19 Vaccination

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 (a recent change), fire and police first responders, teachers, and childcare workers. There are a number of strategies being employed to increase the rate of vaccination, including release of stockpiled vaccine and use of “non-traditional vaccinators” such as pharmacy staff, dentists and paramedics. 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 counties or areas within counties. Producers can inquire when the vaccine will be available to their families and employees by contacting their local public health department.  As of the publication of this article there existed no national or state-wide mechanism for registration for vaccination.

Vaccine Safety – Well over 11 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the United States with no deaths or serious disability reported.  Unlike the live polio or killed influenza vaccinations, COVID-19 vaccines do not contain the entire virus, making it impossible for the vaccine to cause the COVID19 disease. The worst-case scenario is the development of an autoimmune disease, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), which was associated with about one in every one million swine flu vaccination given in 2009, an aberration among flu vaccines. There have been no reported cases of GBS associated with the administration of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Most people receiving the vaccine will experience either a local injection-site reaction (soreness or swelling) and/or a systemic reaction such as fatigue or headache. A mild fever is sometimes seen, more commonly after the second vaccination.  Such mild fever is easily managed with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. In the original Pfizer safety trial, systemic symptoms, if they occurred at all, typically started 1 to 2 days after vaccination, lasting about one day.

A small number of people have experienced allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine, with an incidence of probably less than one to two reactions per 200,000 doses of vaccine. Such reactions, similar to bee stings allergy, are easily managed with administration of epinephrine. It’s for this reason that CDC recommends that people wait at the clinic for 15 to 30 minutes after receiving the vaccine. This same precaution is often advised when receiving the yearly influenza vaccine.

Vaccination vs. Disease Risk – The risk of vaccination can be compared to the risk of mortality or disability resulting from infection. Overall for every 100 cases of confirmed coronavirus infection, between one and two people will die. This infection fatality rate is profoundly age-dependent, with a 65-year-old having 150 times more risk of death than a healthy 25-year-old. Patients with complicating health conditions, such as being overweight or with a history of high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease, have a similarly elevated risk of death or serious long-term disability. Given the absence of death or life-threatening illness resulting from vaccination, the risk of serious illness or death from the vaccine is thousands to millions of times greater than from the vaccine itself.

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, including between 20 and 40% of health care workers, police and firefighters. A recent survey showed a similar distrust of the vaccine among farmworkers with about half saying they would refuse the vaccine or were undecided. In general, rural Americans are more concerned about the COVID-19 vaccine. Reasons given for concern have ranged from distrust in a “untested” vaccine or its effect on fertility to internet theories that the vaccine will actually cause the disease or alter the person’s DNA. A number of agencies and organizations are ramping up COVID-19 vaccination information campaigns in an attempt to address vaccine hesitancy.

Mandatory Vaccine Policy  – According to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) there may be circumstances where an employer can require employees to become vaccinated to protect themselves or others from contracting COVID-19 in the workplace. Exceptions however must be made for employees who cannot be vaccinated because of medical conditions or due to sincerely held religious beliefs. Because mandatory vaccination is a complex issue with potential liability, producers should obtain legal guidance before implementing any such policy.

Life After Vaccine – Because it is unknown how much a vaccinated, exposed person will shed the virus, Cal/OSHA’s ETS standards, including masks and social distancing, will likely remain in place until the epidemic is brought under control. Another reason to encourage employees to remain vigilant is that protection doesn’t start emerging until at least 12 days after vaccination. Lastly, the first dose of the vaccine provides only a fraction of the total protection seen two weeks following the 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.

Vaccination willingness chart

From Orange County’s COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy Survey

Other Resources

A number of organizations and agencies have developed coronavirus webpages. Perhaps the most exhaustive dairy-related page is from the National Milk Producers Federation. For producers looking for just the highlights, NMPF’s coronavirus handbook is only three pages long but dense with information. Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence is another frequently updated site. Other more local organizations such as Western United Dairies, Milk Producers Council and the California Farm Bureau also have excellent COVID-19 webpages. CDFA’s expansive COVID-19 homepage addresses everything from food safety to livestock markets, to meat and poultry processing plants. The UC Davis Western Center for Ag Health and Safety also has an extensive website with a wide offering of employee training tools, including videos, brochures, and posters in English and Spanish. Producers with COVID-19 questions for the University of California – Davis or CDQAP are encouraged to contact Dr. Michael Payne at 530-304-9306 or mpayne@ucdavis.edu.

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