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Coronavirus outbreak at German meat packing plant drives virus reproduction rate back up

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A Member of the German armed forces stands in front of the Toennies meat packing plant near Guetersloh, Germany, June 19, 2020. Sascha Schuermann/Getty

Berlin — Germany's federal health agency has confirmed a massive spike in the measure of how quickly the coronavirus is estimated to be spreading in the country, due largely to more than 1,000 cases detected at a single meat processing plant. The reproduction figure, or R rate, shot well above the critical value of 1 over the weekend thanks to a major cluster of infections at the processing plant in North Rhine-Westphalia.

As of Monday, the R in Germany stood at 2.88, which means that, on average, every single person infected with the virus would be expected to infect 2.88 other people. Generally experts consider an epidemic to be under control when the R falls below a value of 1. Anything over that indicates that a pathogen is still spreading within a defined population.

Germany's state health agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), says significant localized outbreaks will lead to relatively large fluctuations in the national R rate, especially when the overall number of new infections is small.

"Since the number of cases in Germany are at a low level overall, these local outbreaks have a relatively strong influence on the R number," the RKI said. The agency has stressed for weeks that in order for the epidemic to subside, the R rate must be kept below 1.

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, professor of virology at the University of Hamburg, told CBS News, however, that the spike in the R rate due to local outbreaks "doesn't mean it's the trend" for the wider country. He said for a trend to worry epidemiologists, the number would have to remain high for a longer period of time.

"Ideal breeding ground"  

Meat and poultry processing facilities have been linked to a number of coronavirus outbreaks around the world, including in countries where the overall epidemics had been brought largely under control. 

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CBS News' Anna Werner reported last month that an investigation had found 14,000 confirmed coronavirus cases linked to 181 meat processing plants across the U.S., with at least 54 employees killed by the virus. A large poultry plant in Britain is also at the center of a significant COVID-19 cluster with more than 150 confirmed cases.

Such facilities "are an ideal breeding ground for the virus," Schmidt-Chanasit told CBS News, due to the coronavirus' apparent ability to thrive in cold, humid air and the large number of people working in close quarters at these plants. The accommodation provided for seasonal workers is another factor, as it often involves many people sharing limited space.

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The outbreak at the meat processing plant in Germany skewed the nation's overall statistics just as the World Health Organization registered the highest single-day increase in coronavirus cases globally. Worldwide, more than 183,000 new cases were registered on Sunday. In Germany, the RKI reported 537 new infections within 24 hours.

The meat processing factory in North Rhine-Westphalia's Gütersloh district has become the largest local outbreak to hit Germany since the new coronavirus was first detected in the country on January 27.

More than 1,300 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and results were still pending Monday for 200 more people of the total of 6,139 who were tested. About 7,000 workers from the plant and their family members have been put under quarantine. Many of the plant employees are migrant workers from Eastern Europe.

The district has now exceeded a government threshold of 50 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 inhabitants within a week, which, according to an agreement between federal and state governments, should see broad restrictions snap back into place. Nevertheless, authorities have declined to issue any new lockdown orders as of Monday.

Smaller outbreaks elsewhere

Smaller outbreaks in two other regions also contributed to the spike in Germany's R value over the weekend.

There were clashes with police in the city of Göttingen, in Lower Saxony, as residents tried to break down fences put up to keep them quarantined in their apartment building complex. About 700 people have been ordered to remain in their homes in the community. 

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Police wearing full protective suits prepare to enter an apartment building complex amid tension between residents and authorities over coronavirus quarantine orders on many of the residents, June 19, 2020, in Goettingen, Germany. Alexander Koerner/Getty

There's been criticism of local authorities' treatment of the residents, many whom are on low incomes and are members of ethnic minority communities.  

In Berlin, meanwhile, about 100 people have tested positive from one city block of in the city's Neukölln district, where as many as 370 households in seven apartment buildings are affected and now quarantined. Forty-one children are among the infected individuals.

In spite of the clusters, the number of new infections registered daily remains low across most of Germany's states. Even in Thuringia, the first state to lift coronavirus restrictions about a week ago, the situation remains stable. Three new cases have been reported there over the past 24 hours, and in more than 140 districts no new infections have been reported over the past seven days.

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