COVID source shout-out: FERN’s mapping project shuts down

Screenshot of the COVID-19 food system outbreak map, taken on September 4.

In April 2020, Leah Douglas started tracking COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants, food processing facilities, and farms. Douglas is a reporter at the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN); she shared her findings through an interactive dashboard on the FERN website while also writing stories to illuminate the numbers.

On September 2, Douglas announced that the project is shutting down—after counting almost 100,000 COVID-19 cases and 466 deaths among workers in the U.S. food system.

“Initially, I imagined the project would produce a one-time visualization of the spread of the virus at food manufacturing plants last spring,” Douglas writes in a post announcing the project’s end.  “But it quickly became clear that the scope of worker illness, and the lack of information disclosure from companies and public health authorities, necessitated deeper investigation.”

Douglas explains that, while the project was challenged from the start by a lack of data from food companies and public health agencies alike, data have become even scarcer in recent months. “There likely hasn’t been another surge like the one witnessed at meatpacking plants in the spring of 2020, but data constraints mean that the true toll of the pandemic on food system workers is unknown,” she says.

Douglas’ project was cited by major news outlets, appeared on TV shows, used by research organizations, and utilized by policymakers to draw attention to COVID-19 outbreaks in the food system. It was also listed as one of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch’s best COVID-19 data stories of 2020.

Here at the CDD, we thank Leah Douglas for her months of hard work on this incredibly important issue—and wish her the best in her new position at Reuters.

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