Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, blamed a coronavirus outbreak in meat processing facilities on the "home and social" conditions of their predominantly racial minority workforce.
At least 6,500 meatpacking plant workers have contracted COVID-19, which has shut down facilities and disrupted the food supply chain, and President Donald Trump's top health official suggested during a phone call with lawmakers the workers themselves were to blame, reported Politico.
"He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem," said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH), who took part in the call. "Their theory of the case is that they are not becoming infected in the meat processing plant, they're becoming infected because of the way they live in their home."
About 44 percent of meatpackers are Latino and 25 percent are African American, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and an estimated 80 percent of meat processing plant employees are undocumented or refugees.
Azar told a bipartisan group that he believed infections were being brought into the plants by employees, saying many of them lived in communal housing -- and he proposed sending law enforcement into their communities to enforce social distancing rules.
"Law enforcement is not going to solve the problem," Kuster said. "It was so far off base."
There hasn't been enough testing to show where the workers were infected, but epidemiologists believe meat processing plants themselves are the epicenter for the disease in many rural areas due to crowded conditions on the job.
"The risk factor appears to be the packing plants and not the homes, because that's the gathering place," said Christine Petersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa. "I don't think we can say it was because certain groups were socializing more."