US meat plants TRANSCRIPT: 4/28/20, The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Debbie Berkowitz, Debbie Stabenow

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Really happy to have you with us.

This is one of those A blocks where you`re not going to know why I`m starting with what I`m starting with. But if you stick with me till the end, it has a really big payoff. So let`s break the wall a little bit to tell you how this is going to go, but that`s how it`s going to go.

I want to start in 2018, which feels like roughly 35 years ago now, but two years ago, 2018, the country had a big problem with lettuce. There was an E. coli outbreak affecting romaine lettuce in the United States in 2018. Do you remember that?

It was a big deal. Illnesses reported in 36 states, 96 people hospitalized. More than two dozen people got a really serious complication that basically resulted in kidney failure. Five Americans ultimately died.

When that happened in 2018, the FDA and the CDC and investigators in several states, they got together and did the public health detective work that needed to be done to figure out what had gone wrong in that outbreak.

And those investigators ultimately pinpointed the source of the problem with romaine lettuce. That was both a hard thing for them to do -- it was very impressive -- but it was also something that had really practical consequences for us, the lettuce-eating public, and for the produce industry that sells the stuff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT BRADLEY, NBC NEWS REPORTER: At the Pasadena farmers market this morning, lettuce lovers can shop easy, knowing this locally grown romaine is safe.

CATHY DOMINGUEZ, UNDERWOOD FAMILY FARMS: I had a couple customers ask about the romaine lettuce, whether or not ours was California grown, if it was safe to eat. And yes.

BRADLEY: The concern, romaine grown in Yuma, Arizona, and shipped across the country. The CDC is warning about an E. coli outbreak from lettuce grown there, telling grocery stores, restaurants and consumers to toss it all out if they can`t be sure where it came from.

ABBY TAYLOR-SILVA, GROWER-SHIPPER ASSOCIATION OF CENTRAL CALIFORNIA: We`re really looking at lettuce in the grocery stores that`s coming from California, not from Yuma, Arizona, and it`s not affected by this outbreak.

BRADLEY: A distinction that puts local shoppers at ease.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We know which farmers are here. I feel confident we`re not going to have any issues.

BRADLEY: Matt Bradley, NBC News, Pasadena, California.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: California lettuce shoppers at ease once the disease detectives found that the contamination in romaine lettuce in 2018 was not coming from California farms, so it was safe to buy California romaine.

It was an interesting public health case study. The team that did that investigation produced this report that not only outlined the problems that they detected at these farms in Arizona, they also produced really blunt findings about what growers and processors needed to do to fix this problem and to avoid something similar happening in the future. It`s really, you know, blunt, specific advice. Assess and mitigate risks related to land uses near or adjacent to growing fields that may contaminate agricultural water or leafy green crops.

For example, nearby cattle operations or dairy farms, manure or composting facility. Also, assure that all agricultural water, water that directly contacts the harvestable portion of the crop, is safe and adequate for its intended use, including agricultural water used for the application of crop protection chemicals. Really specific test. It goes on like that for pages.

And documents like this are common in the food industry and in public health at large. The CDC specifically has a whole team that works on things like this for public health, the Epidemic Intelligence Service. And it`s as cool as it sounds. I mean, they really are more like detectives than anything else.

And there`s public evidence of their work everywhere. We get the reports on what they do. There was, for example, a deadly food poisoning outbreak associated with the Jack in the Box fast food chain back in the early 1990s. I remember how freaked out everybody was about that. It was a big concern.

The CDC investigated that to figure out what was going wrong. That was how America figured out what happened there and how Jack in the Box got back on its feet.

Here`s the report from -- the CDC report after they investigated an outbreak on South Bass Island in Ohio in 2004. It was an outbreak of gastroenteritis. They didn`t know where it was coming from. The CDC came in. They traced it to contaminated groundwater on the island, and they made a bunch of really specific recommendations.

Quote: The septage disposal site should be closed and septage must be disposed at the sewage treatment facility or off the island. Residents should not consume groundwater unless the source has demonstrated history of negative bacteriological results. All island groundwater should be treated before consumption. A moratorium on the construction of new on-site wastewater treatment and disposal systems should be imposed.

I mean, you have a bad public health situation of some kind. People are getting sick, and it all seems to be from some sort of source, but nobody can exactly figure out, you know, what happens is. The CDC comes in. Their disease detectives investigate it, and they tell you what you need to do. And then you do it.

This is -- this is the system that we have in this country. And it`s for, you know, big, famous outbreaks like the Jack in the Box thing. It`s like that island outbreak in Ohio that you never heard about.

Duval County, Florida, in 2012, they had a TB outbreak at an assisted living facility. It`s one of the biggest tuberculosis outbreaks in the United States in more than a decade. The recommendations there were blunt and straight-up CDC style. Screen all staff and clients with one of these four forms of testing.

Replace ventilation filters monthly. Require proof of TB screening for all staff and clients. And this is how things have looked at the CDC going back to the `80s and `90s and the early 2000s. This is what they looked like during the Trump administration for example when they found Legionnaires` disease at a veterans home in Quincey, Illinois, two years ago.

The CDC came in and did one of these investigations. They called it an Epi- Aid. And they told them what they needed to do at this veterans home.

Quote: Residents who develop pneumonia should be tested for Legionnaires` disease with one of these two types of assays -- actually with both of these two types of assays.

The CDC told them who exactly should supervise patient transfers in the veterans home to the local hospital. The CDC picked who should be in charge of those transfers to make sure the legionnaires testing didn`t fall through the cracks for any veterans who are transferred from one place to the other.

The CDC went so far as to tell them how to re-rig their plumbing, their thermostatic valves, to ensure the water temperature was right inside the home. Quote, the veterans home should establish control limits for the hot water temperature range at fixtures prior to mixing.

This is how it works. It`s really good that we have them and that they`re a top-shelf organization. CDC gets called in because there`s a public health disaster somewhere. They investigate what happened. They tell you what to do to fix it and to stop it from happening again, and you do it.

That is how it works. That is how it`s supposed to work. That is not how it is working now.

Let me explain. Let me also back up for a second first. As of today, the U.S. is now over 1 million cases of coronavirus, absolutely dwarfing any other epidemic anywhere else in the world. We are up over 58,000 Americans dead from coronavirus over the course of not much longer than one month.

Remember when the University of Washington model that the White House was relying on said that we would likely hit 61,000 dead Americans by August 4th? That was the projection the White House was relying on. Well, we`re likely to hit 61,000 dead Americans by the end of this week, easy, and it`s still April.

So the rosy estimates about how we were going to get out of this with just 50,000 or 60,000 people dead, no. Today, that University of Washington model that the White House has been relying on, they revised upward their estimate of how many Americans this thing is going to kill. They now say they think it will be more than 74,000 of us dead by the first week of August. So we`ll see.

Americans, by large majorities, support the policies that have been put in place to slow the spread of the virus, the stay-at-home orders, the limits on the size of gatherings. "The Washington Post" has a new national poll that shows that really big majorities of Americans, nearly two-thirds of Americans, support those policies. Plus, another 16 percent of Americans who say the restrictions actually aren`t tight enough, that we should be doing more.

Nevertheless, there are governors around the country who are starting to tell businesses and different entities in their states to open up, and the White House is letting them all do it, encouraging them to do it themselves, make up their own models for disease control in a global pandemic.

You know, and governors often go out of their way to say they`re very data- driven in these decisions, but it`s clear most of them are making that up. Just from the data that we have about what`s happening in the epidemic right now, it`s at least clear where it`s the worst idea to open things up. "The New York Times" put on its front page today the aggregated local information about where the American epidemic is worst right now.

And I find it very helpful actually that they stacked the data into metro areas rather than just looking at it by county because we`re not always familiar with what county names mean. But if you talk about metro areas, it`s usually something that you recognize.

Look at the list -- top ten places in the country where the outbreak is the worst right now. This is new cases over the past two weeks. And you see some expected locations there, right? The tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut is obviously the hardest hit area in the country and has been from the beginning. New York City, you see on there in fifth place. Fairfield County, Connecticut, is there. Trenton, New Jersey.

But look at everything else on that list. I mean number one is Marion, Ohio. Why is that number one on the list? Oh, right, they have a state prison in Marion, Ohio, where more than 80 percent of the prisoners, more than 2,000 men in that facility, have tested positive. So, yes, they`re number one.

Grand Island, Nebraska, is ranked second in the nation in terms of where the outbreak is worst right now. The Grand Island, Nebraska, outbreak started at a JBS meat processing plant in Grand Island. There`s no stay-at- home order either statewide in Nebraska or locally in Grand Island. The governor wouldn`t let them do it. So the outbreak there that started at that JBS meat plant has just exploded in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is third. That`s another prison outbreak. That`s Cummins Prisons with over 900 prisoners and staff infected. It`s not -- it`s not -- you know, you can go by this one by one.

It`s not rocket science to figure out where and why the raging out of control American coronavirus epidemic is at its worst. I mean, where prisons are testing, those are turning out to be some of the worst and biggest outbreaks in the country. Still don`t have a national strategy we`re working on about that, but the more places test, the more you will find that to be true. We`re going to have more on that coming up later on this hour.

We`re seeing it in prisons. We`re also seeing it where there are meet plants with thousands of employees. Of the top ten metro areas where the coronavirus outbreak is the worst in the country right now, four of the ten are places where the local outbreaks appear to have sprung from big meat processing plants with thousands of workers.

I mean, why should the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area in Iowa have hundreds of cases and still be growing? One of the worst outbreaks in the country. Well, they`ll tell you in Waterloo that it came from the Tyson meat plant there. You know, why is it one of the worst places in the country right now to be in Grand Island, Nebraska? Because of the JBS meat plant there and the outbreak that started at that plant.

The Sioux City, Iowa, area, why over 1,000 cases in the Sioux City, Iowa, area and still growing? Well, local mayors there would like to know.

Quote: The mayors of all five cities in Metro Sioux City called yesterday for greater transparency from state and county health officials about places contributing to the recent spike in local COVID-19 cases. In a joint statement, the mayors asked businesses to, quote, take responsibility for any outbreak or spread of the coronavirus in their facilities, publicly disclose any positive cases, and release a detailed plan for reducing the spread of the virus.

Employers who fail to comply with these conditions should close until such time a response plan is in place, according to the mayors` statement. The mayors publicly weighed in on the subject as county and state health officials continued to sidestep questions linking the surge in positive cases to Tyson Fresh Meats, Dakota City beef plant, the Sioux City metro area`s largest employer with over 4,300 workers.

Now, Dakota City beef plant in Dakota County, Nebraska, more than 4,300 workers there. It`s in the Sioux City metro area, but the Sioux City metro area encompasses three different states -- Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

In Dakota County where the plant is specifically, Dakota County, Nebraska, they`ve already got 600 cases reported in that county. There`s no hospital in that county.

That`s the second highest number of cases in all of Nebraska`s counties. The other one is another big meatpacking plant. I mean, this Dakota City outbreak, that`s -- nobody`s talking about how many workers are positive there.

The mayors, the local mayors there in the Sioux City area, are asking the three governors in that tri-state area, the Republican governors in South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska to please provide a more comprehensive reporting dad to include the specific location where any outbreak or spread has occurred. They`re asking for help. Please tell us where our hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of coronavirus cases are coming from in the Sioux City area.

But, you know, you might be barking the tree, wrong trees, because in Iowa, South Dakota, and Republican, those are three Republican governors who never put in place any stay-at-home orders and who are even today bragging about how much more they`re now opening up even though they didn`t actually close anything in the first place.

So we`ll see how the Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska governors feel about the Sioux City area mayors freaking out about their hundreds of coronavirus cases and their open meat plants with thousands of workers and nobody telling them how many cases there are at those plants. But that`s what`s happening in that part of the country, which is among the worst-hit areas in the country now.

I should also tell you that in Iowa today, the lead story in "The Des Moines Register" is how the Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds last week received an explicit warning from the University of Iowa about the pace of the epidemic in her state, warning the governor explicitly, quote, prevention measures should remain in place. Without such measures being continued, a second wave of infections is likely.

She was advised as such by the University of Iowa last week, but today she moved to loosen everything up anyway. Two of the fastest-growing, worst outbreaks in the country are in Iowa, but who cares, right? Open it up.

But this meatpacking thing isn`t just in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa. It`s everywhere there`s meatpacking. In Cass County, Indiana, they have no reason to have over 1,000 coronavirus cases in Cass County, Indiana, except for their Tyson meat plant there.

In Greeley, Colorado, Weld County, Colorado, where the local hospital is groaning, local health officials writing to Weld County this week to tell them to please not open anything up. Quote, in our hospitals, we have never before seen numbers of patients relying on ventilators to stay alive. That`s local health officials in Weld County. That`s because Weld County is groaning under the weight of its coronavirus patients already because of the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, with an untold number of workers infected there because the JBS plant there decided just not to test them all before opening back up yesterday. You got 6,000 people in that plant.

The plant told NBC News yesterday they are proceeding as if everybody in the plant`s infected. They`re not testing them. There`s no stay-at-home order in Weld County now. Effectively no stay-at-home order in Weld County because Weld County decided that they didn`t decide to believe that the governor`s stay-at-home order was enforceable. And Weld County is telling businesses to do whatever they want.

I have to tell you, though, wrap this back around. The CDC did get called in to do one of their famous Epi-Aid investigations at one of these meat plants, at one of the first, worst outbreaks, the Smithfield plant outbreak in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The CDC got called in to investigate what happened here and to tell them what to do. But something hinky appears to have happened there. You remember just a few minutes ago the kind of language I described from the other CDC Epi-Aid reports on other public health disasters that they`ve investigates, right? They don`t tend to mince their words in terms of what they tell people to do, right?

Screen all staff and clients with one of these four forms of testing. A moratorium on the construction of new on site wastewater treatment and disposal systems should be imposed. The veterans home should establish control limits for the hot water temperature range at fixtures.

I mean, that`s how CDC Epi-Aid reports look. That`s the language that you find decade after decade, outbreak after outbreak, investigation after investigation from the CDC. Public health disaster in any state of any size, famous or obscure, the CDC comes in. They diagnose it. They figure it out and they tell you what to do.

A moratorium should be imposed. Screen all staff. Establish limits. That`s how CDC Epi-Aid reports are written.

Except not anymore, not in this crisis apparently, not in the meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that accounts for already more than 1,000 cases in Sioux Falls. CDC went in and did their investigation. Their recommendations in terms of what the plant ought to do, if you look at all the nouns, all the substance of what they say, would be a relevant fix, it all seems rational.

But for some reason, there`s a whole lot of very un-CDC language throughout this report. I mean it flat out says, quote, these recommendations are discretionary and are not required or mandated by CDC. What?

Look at this. Quote: Consider the following actions to physically separate employees. Consider the following actions? Just think about it?

Portable hand washing facilities could be utilized. Oh, they could, could they?

Stagger shifts, start times, and break times as much as feasible. Yeah, but Smithfield, don`t knock yourself out. If it`s not feasible, of course we understand.

Quote, consider moving training online. You should consider that. Quote, make unidirectional paths through the facility where possible. Face coverings are generally recommended. Quote, if feasible, all employees should wear face coverings. But if not, you know, no big.

Quote: The facial covering should be discarded and replaced when wet or dirty, comma, if possible.

What CDC is this? This kind of language is not what the CDC does in these kinds of investigations. Literally over the course of decades, we`ve looked at the language in these investigations. This is not the way the CDC tells you what to do after they investigate the public health disaster in your facility or in your town or in your state.

All this: if feasible, if possible, consider doing this, this isn`t mandatory, you might want to -- I mean this gives all the meatpacking plants any kind of out to not do any of this stuff. All they have to do is say, oh, that`s not feasible. They told us to consider it. We did think about it. We decided not to do it.

I mean what is this? If possible, specifically ask employees about recent history of fever. If it`s possible, but, you know, whatever.

The Trump administration, as of tonight, is telling all the meat plants to open, to remain open. There`s been dozens of meat plants shut around the country. The president has issued an executive order within the last few minutes that tells all the meat plants to open back up.

Why have the meat plants closed? Because they`ve been infecting their workers with coronavirus by the thousands and lots of workers have started to die. So when the president is now ordering them all to open back up, what does that mean for all the workers who are working in these environments where in state after state after state, in plant after plant after plant, we are seeing that the working conditions in these facilities expose them to mortal risk.

There are thousands of Americans, thousands of people who have been infected at these meat plants already. It`s not a coincidence. It`s not a one-off. It`s happening because of the way these meat plants operate.

So, should the way the meat plants operate be changed if they`re going to be ordered by the president to reopen? The president is telling them to be open, to reopen. Any place that`s closed, reopen, right? The Trump administration is also, simultaneously, apparently overseeing a new kind of CDC where meat plants with gigantic public health disasters unfolding inside them don`t actually get told what to do to keep their employees alive anymore. They just get some handy hints that they`re free to disregard.

And I expect anything from the Trump administration. I do not expect this from the CDC. CDC, are you OK? Would you let us know if you`re not?

We`re going to try to get some answers here, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: It took thousands of confirmed coronavirus cases at the nation`s meat processing plants and at least 20 deaths of people who work at those plants, but the Trump administration just this past weekend finally did issue some guidance for those plants on how to keep their workers safe if the plants are going to be kept open. Those guidelines are purely voluntary, though.

And this comes after a sort of strange CDC report on a meatpacking plant outbreak in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That report stopped short of actually telling the plant to do anything directly and instead used a bunch of what appears to be unprecedented mealy mouthed language just suggesting that the plant think about making changes if feasible rather than just bluntly telling them in public health terms what they ought to do.

We don`t know why the CDC is suddenly all pudding mouthed about these things for the first time in their existence and we don`t know why all of this is being perceived as voluntary for these plants. The federal government could have required that plants take this public health measures if they`re going to be open. But they haven`t done so.

There`s an entire agency who`s job is to do that thing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, requires workplaces to operate safely, and they mean it, right? They can require you to do stuff. They don`t just suggest it or give you stuff to think about.

But instead of requiring anything during COVID-19, the Trump administration has just opted for these, you know, sort of gentle suggestions. And their guidance for meet plants this weekend, OSHA and CDC included a handy graphic illustrating how meatpacking work stations should be aligned, quote, if feasible.

You know, if you can swing it, if it`s not too much trouble. If it is too much trouble, you don`t have to do it, whatever.

I mean, even if these merely voluntary, if feasible, see if you want to think about it safety guidelines, even with the meatpacking industry fighting to keep its plants running until now, there were 20 or so plants that have been shut down this month across the country either because of intense local pressure or just because so many workers are out sick, they can`t stay operational. But apparently, President Trump is now, as of tonight, going to force those plants to reopen and to force the plants that haven`t yet closed to stay open.

The president signed this executive order tonight declaring meat plants to be critical infrastructure in the nation`s food supply chain. You start shutting down meat plants just because a few thousand of your workers are sick, this White House isn`t going to stand for that.

Forcing coronavirus outbreaks like these meatpacking plants to stay open or reopen would pose a tremendous public health challenge even if the federal government were requiring that strict health and safety protocols had to be implemented in these plants. But this order from the White House has the potential to undercut even the voluntary guidance the CDC and OSHA issued this weekend.

Ahead of the president signing this order tonight, former senior OSHA official Debbie Berkowitz told "The Washington Post" this. She said, quote: The president has just undermined all efforts to stop the spread of disease in these plants. He`s essentially saying they must be allowed to operate and this there should be no specific requirements that plants must follow to stop the spread of this disease.

Quote, Berkowitz said Trump`s order would render meaningless guidance that the CDC issued on Sunday. Quote, without putting in specific safety requirements beyond masks, the disease will continue to spread through the plants and into the community.

The Trump administration could make the guidance that is intended to keep the workers at these plants alive mandatory. It could require these plants to keep their workers safe from coronavirus. They`re just not and ordering them back open when thousands of people have already been infected inside them.

So what`s going on here?

Joining us now is Debbie Berkowitz. She is now the director of the National Employment Law Project`s Worker Health and Safety Program. She`s a former senior policy adviser for OSHA under President Obama.

Ms. Berkowitz, thank you so much for making time tonight. You are an in- demand person at this point, and I really appreciate you being here.

DEBBIE BERKOWITZ, FORMER OSHA POLICY ADVISOR: I am so happy to be here, Rachel. Thank you.

MADDOW: Let me ask you. You obviously are a well-steeped expert in all of these matters that I am approaching as a layman and an observer. Let me just ask you in all humility to please correct me or let me know if I`m looking at any of this the wrong way around or even if I`m just emphasizing the wrong things in the way that I`m trying to explain this situation.

BERKOWITZ: No. I think you are totally spot-on, and it`s something that is just very hard to wrap your brain around that the president has essentially said to 500,000 blue-collar workers out there, working these really hard jobs in meat and poultry plants, that he doesn`t care if you get sick or you die because he wants the plants to be open, so, you know, his corporate executive friends can keep making money.

I think that one of the things that`s important to point out is the president didn`t have to do this. He is creating a false choice, that you can either feed America or keep workers safe. And you can absolutely do both. And a caring industry would do both.

MADDOW: I think that there is -- because we are in a crisis, because so much of this is unprecedented, what we`re living through right now is unprecedented, I think there is actually a lot of sympathy and people are willing to give the government a lot of leeway in terms of understanding that some things are hard to do and that some things may be nigh on impossible to do but you`ve got to try to do them, and you know you won`t perfection, but at least if you try and you fail a little bit, people will understand. I feel that`s true with a lot of things that have gone wrong.

But in this case, I feel like there isn`t a case for nihilistic resignation. The CDC and OSHA, to a certain extent, have actually done the work to figure out factually what needs to be done to run meatpacking plants in a way that doesn`t kill their workers or expose them all to this infectious disease. It`s -- the work is done. It`s just a matter of requiring them to do it, which is just a decision by the government, isn`t it?

BERKOWITZ: Yes, it`s another stunning thing is the Department of Labor, headed by Eugene Scalia, you know, OSHA, the agency I once worked at in the last administration, has chosen -- this is a choice -- not to enforce any requirements in the meat industry to protect workers. They could. They could enforce everything the CDC laid out at the beginning of March and again laid it out very clearly just now, as you said, in their new guidance.

The industry, you know, looked at these recommendations. They`re voluntary. And in the end, didn`t implement them, didn`t implement them even though workers and unions and myself, we all called for them all through the month of March. And the result is, you know, as you said, over 3,000 workers are really sick, 17 to 20 (ph) workers have died. It`s spread into the communities. And this didn`t have to happen.

Had the industry implemented these measures, they would still be operating right now. They wouldn`t be shut down.

MADDOW: Let me also ask you about the language that has struck me as unusual, perhaps unprecedented, in the CDC`s report on what happened in that Smithfield plant in South Dakota. We`re seeing echoes of it a little bit in the voluntary guidelines that were produced by the administration this weekend.

You`re an expert when you look at those things. I`m just a person who specializes in reading comprehension and in comparing different Epi-Aid reports from CDC, from different types of outbreaks and crises over the decades. I feel like I have never before seen all of this mealy-mouthed, you got an out here kind of language, saying, don`t do this if you don`t want to. Just consider this, if feasible, if possible, you might want to mull this over.

I just feel like it`s not -- it doesn`t read like a public health document usually does. It doesn`t read like CDC instructions usually do after they`ve done one of these investigations. But, again, I would like your expert opinion on whether or not that seems strange to you as well.

BERKOWITZ: I think CDC knows clearly how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in these plants and how to prevent it from spreading back into the community. I think what happened is they wrote it all up and somebody in the agency clearly took a pen to make it seem like, well, but you don`t really have to do it. This is voluntary.

And I think there`s a real price to pay for this kind of -- I would call it government malfeasance, for OSHA not to just take these guidelines and make them mandatory, that you have to redo your production lines so workers are six feet apart. You can`t make them work shoulder to shoulder, thousands and thousands of workers lining up along metal tables in these cold, wet, noisy conditions. You know, everybody making 10,000 cuts a day.

CDC actually recommended that they restructure them, that workers don`t work on both sides of these tables, that they work six feet apart, that they build tents for the break rooms so thousands of workers don`t all go to break at once. You know, the meatpacking industry, on a normal day, workers don`t have time to go to the bathroom. So, it`s really having to change the way they do business and slow down line.

And, you know, I just think from the top, they don`t want to give employers any responsibility for protecting workers. And in the end, this is just going to create a second wave. It`s going to defeat the whole purpose of trying to spread -- I mean, prevent the spread of this disorder. And it`s a really stunning, stunning development.

MADDOW: Debbie Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project, former senior policy adviser for OSHA -- Ms. Berkowitz, thank you so much for your time tonight. Obviously, we`ll stay on this story. We`re trying to figure out what`s going on with CDC in particular on this, but we`d love to have you back as this story progresses. Thank you.

BERKOWITZ: Thank you so much.

MADDOW: All right. We`ve got much more to come here tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Even from a distance, you can see why protesters showed up this weekend outside the state prison in Marion, Ohio, the Marion Correctional Institution.

Supporters of the people living inside that prison held signs like "inmates have rights" and "not a death sentence." It`s all because of this. The shocking numbers of coronavirus cases that have been reported out of that facility. The 2,500 men who are incarcerated inside that Marion prison, 2,500, of them, more than 2,000 have tested positive, over 80 percent of the prisoners there.

Among the staff, there`s 169 people who have tested positive already as well. At another state prison nearby in Pickaway, Ohio, more than 1,500 prisoners have tested positive. That`s roughly three quarters of the population there.

But yet at another prison in the same state, Elkton Federal Prison in Ohio, there are seven prisoners who have died there already. About somehow the prison at Elkton has confirmed only 52 cases.

Wait, Marion and Pickaway have 1,500, 2,000 cases. This other prison in Ohio has only 52 cases with all these people dead already. That seems abnormally low. Until you realize, less that 100 of the in hundred inmates at Elkton have been tested because they`re testing in the state prisons in Ohio but they`re really not testing in the federal prisons.

The pattern for this virus is developing in a hurry. Any prison not doing wide-scale testing like the Elkton federal prison in Ohio, is putting out numbers that simply aren`t believable. Any prison that is doing universal testing is turning up numbers that astonish.

At that Ohio state facility in Marion where, again, over 80 percent of the prisoners tested positive, 95 percent of those positive cases were men who were asymptomatic. So the virus is there churning through our prisons regardless of whether we care enough or can get enough tests to find it. So, yes, you are going to see protests from family members like the one in Marion, Ohio, this weekend because not only is the virus tearing through that facility, it also inevitably leaves the prison and creates a problem in the surrounding community, I mean to the point that Marion, Ohio, is now number one on "The New York Times" list of the worst outbreaks in the country, with 32,000 cases for every 1,000 people in the county.

It really is an everywhere problem. In southern Michigan, for example, the state prison in Lakeland, Michigan, just announced the death of its 12th prisoner. Lakeland is also the first prison in Michigan to test all of its prisoners in that facility. There`s about 1,400 men in that facility. More than 50 percent have now tested positive for coronavirus, with implications not just for the prisoners but for the people who would there and the families they go home to and the rest of the community in which they live.

We are not yet starting to fix this. It is only even in the places that we are testing this that we are able to start to recognize the magnificent size of this problem. When does this get fixed?

Michigan`s senior senator joins us live here, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: When a response to a global pandemic is as cartoonishly botched as this government is, when it`s that bad, you don`t really need to do much, to dress up much in order to get the point across. You can just state the facts and have a big-voiced guy same them to your ad music.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AD ANNOUNCER: And now he has. The United States leads the world in coronavirus cases. More than 50,000 Americans dead, twice as many deaths as any other country. Over 26 million people have lost their jobs.

And it`s only getting worse. Downplaying the threat, ignoring the experts, refusing to prepare. Donald Trump is failing America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The way that started, the way the clip in, you actually missed the first little bit of it, which started with: Donald Trump said he would put America first, and now he has. The United States leads the world in coronavirus cases.

That whole America first slogan not aging well obviously in this time, but that`s a new ad from the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA that is apparently going to run across three key battleground states that President Trump won in 2016 where the good people who live there have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis -- Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Pennsylvania and Michigan both rank in the top ten in terms of states with the most coronavirus cases already.

Nationwide, the average daily percent increase in cases is just shy of 2.5 percent. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all beat that right now, which is bad in terms of the increasing size of their epidemics. But like you saw in the ad, you don`t really need to weaponize or dress up the president and the administration`s failed response and how it`s costing American lives.

You just tell it, right? You just state the facts. Just ask the people of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Joining us now is Senator Debbie Stabenow of the great state of Michigan. She is the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which puts her in a really important job right now.

Senator Stabenow, it`s really nice to see you. Thanks for being here tonight.

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW (D-MI): It`s great to be with you, Rachel.

And I just personally want to thank you for lifting up the issues on meatpacking plants and all of the other worker safety issues and testing issues in prisons. And your voice is really important at this time.

MADDOW: Well, that`s very kind of you to say. Well, let me -- let me get your top-line reaction, especially because of your intense involvement in agriculture issues. The president tonight has signed this executive order. It compels meat processing plants to stay open or to reopen even though so many of them have shut at least temporarily.

STABENOW: Right.

MADDOW: Thousands of meat processing workers have been infected on the job.

What do you make of this move by the president?

STABENOW: Well, it`s stunning in what it doesn`t do, right? And that`s what you have been talking about tonight. If we want our meatpacking plants to be safe, our workers have to be safe, period. And so, he doesn`t use the Defense Production Act to make sure we have materials, to make sure we have testing kits and reagents so that we can do the tests to make sure that we can protect Americans or to make sure we have the protective equipment that we need in our country. That`s what we should be doing is making those things in America.

Instead, he uses it to compel meatpacking plants to be open, in part to give some liability protection for the owners of the plants -- let`s be honest about that -- and I want them to be opened. But he doesn`t do the piece that keeps it open, which is requiring testing, requiring aggressive protective equipment, requiring OSHA standards, all the things that actually would protect people.

So, now, we know at least 20 lives have been lost in meatpacking plants alone. We know that over 5,000 people in fact have been infected, and they go home at night, you know, as we all know. They`re going back to their families, back to their communities. Many small towns in rural communities where their health care system, their hospitals are very fragile by just the nature of being in small towns.

And so, it`s devastating what`s happening, and they could do it the right way. We need the food supply. We need the plants open. But we need people`s lives to be protected.

MADDOW: Do you agree with the expert that I spoke with earlier this hour who said that this is basically a flip the light switch decision by the administration, that if the secretary of labor, if Eugene Scalia said, hey, the OSHA guidelines are mandatory, they`re not just suggestions, they`re not just guidance.

STABENOW: Right.

MADDOW: You have to do them. That meatpacking plants would be required to meet those standards in order to open back up. It seems like it`s not a logistics issue or an "it`s too hard" issue. It`s a lack -- a lack of will. All they`d have to do is decide to do it, and those things would be mandatory.

STABENOW: You`re absolutely right. And I do have to say, I always agree with Debbies whenever I have the opportunity to do that, but -- from one Debbie to another.

But in all seriousness, OSHA requirements, they can put in place right away. CDC, usually not optional. It`s usually not a maybe, if you feel like it.

And also, we have meat inspectors to go into the plants every day. If the USDA meat inspector does not go in the plant, the plant can`t operate. And so, there are multiple ways to basically say to the plants, you have to follow standards to be able to be open.

And let me stress again, Rachel, it`s not that I want them to close. Heavens no. We have enough challenges in our food supply system right now with our bulk suppliers, you know, not having markets with restaurants and fast food and all of the other markets that are really shutting down for them at the moment.

So I want it to be open, but not at the expense of people`s lives. You know, in the United States of America, that should not be the choice, and that`s what I am extremely upset about.

Thirty-five Senate colleagues, Democratic colleagues, and I sent a letter last week to the secretary laying out what needed to be done, to protect our food supply and to protect our workers. We`ve not yet received a response, but instead what we get is they`re going to require the plants to be open -- which, by the way, they wouldn`t have to require them to be open because the owners want them to be open. You require them to be open to give them the overlay of liability protection.

And to do that without also requiring the plants to have to protect workers, to test people, to have all of the other things in place that need to be in place is what I find incredibly offensive.

MADDOW: Yes, especially because we`ve now lived through this real-time experiment where we have seen in real life that these plants are places where thousands of Americans, thousands of people get infected on the job unless things radically change.

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan -- Senator, I really appreciate you making the time to be here tonight. I know you and your colleagues will be back to Washington soon with all that fraught -- all that fraught travel.

Thanks for being here. I appreciate it.

STABENOW: You`re welcome.

MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back.

(COMEMRCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: One thing that we`re going to be watching for in tomorrow`s news, early in the morning tomorrow, we`re going to have the first quarter GDP estimate released, that`s economic growth for the first quarter of this year, it will be a negative number, which is scary enough.

The worst of the great recession put GDP growth at almost negative 4 percent. Tomorrow could turn out to be significantly worse than that. Those numbers should come out at 8:30 Eastern Time tomorrow. We`ll be watching for that early in the morning.

And I have just one tiny last piece of important news before we go tonight. I need to say happy birthday to Susan`s mom, who is 90 years old today, strong as an ox, as wonderful and terrifying as to me as she was the first day I was so nervous to meet her more than 20 something years ago now. Happy birthday. Happy birthday.

All right. That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".

Good evening, Lawrence.

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