By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – At least 65 U.S. meatpacking employees and 28 food-processing employees have died from COVID-19, the country’s largest meatpacking union said on Thursday, reflecting the steep toll the contagious respiratory disease has taken on essential workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said that more than 196 of its members who work in meat and food plants, grocers and healthcare facilities have died from COVID-19, which is caused by the new coronavirus. More than 2,300 members were exposed to or affected by the virus in the last month, the union told reporters on a call.

New daily COVID-19 cases around the country have recently climbed to a near-record high and U.S. government experts said the coronavirus may have infected 10 times more Americans than reported.

“Our country’s frontline workers are still getting sick and dying,” said Marc Perrone, the union’s president.

Many meatpacking employees are missing work because they are quarantined or afraid they will fall ill if they return to their jobs at plants that house thousands of workers.

At a Tyson Foods Inc <TSN.N> pork plant in Logansport, Indiana, about 200 employees out of 2,000 have not returned to work after the company temporarily closed the facility in April because of the pandemic, Dennis Medbourn, a union steward at the slaughterhouse, said on the call.

“I believe it’s strictly out of fear,” Medbourn said.

About 20 plants run by companies like Tyson, JBS USA [JBS.UL] and Smithfield Foods [SFII.UL] closed in April as thousands of workers tested positive for COVID-19. The shutdowns sent meat prices soaring and contributed to shortages of some products in grocery stores.

President Donald Trump issued an order on April 28 telling meatpackers to stay open. Companies say they spent tens of millions of dollars stepping up cleaning at plants, installing physical dividers on production lines and implementing other measures to protect workers.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek, Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)