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Coronavirus Surges In Louisa County, Following Outbreak At Meat Processing Plant

Madeleine King/IPR file
Adjusted for population, the new coronavirus is spreading faster in Louisa County, Iowa than in New York City.

The new coronavirus is now spreading faster in Louisa County than anywhere else in Iowa. Cases have increased exponentially in the rural community, following reports that workers at a local meat processing plant tested positive. The outbreak is laying bare the complexities of providing care in rural communities; the county is home to many foreign-born residents and has no hospital.

Southeast Iowa’s Louisa County has just over 11,200 residents. But according to a Washington Post analysis, as of Wednesday, the community has a higher rate transmission of the virus than New York City, Detroit or Chicago, considered national hotspots of COVID-19.

While state’s main population centers have a larger number of cases overall, the outbreak in Louisa County is demonstrating how quickly the virus can spread, even in small communities, and is exposing dire needs in rural health infrastructure.

An administrator at the Louisa County Public Health Department respectfully declined an interview request, saying that the department is too busy handling the outbreak.

Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi leads the Carson Chin Baptist Church in Columbus Junction, a congregation which is made up largely of Burmese immigrants. He says many of his church members work at the Tyson meat processing plant in town, where more than 180 workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

He says he’s thankful the facility has temporarily shut down its operations, in the hopes of preventing further spread in the community.

“Thank God for that, [that] they closed the Tyson company. Otherwise, I think they work very close [to] one another,” the pastor said. “I don’t know how long they will close. But I think if they continue to work that will be a problem for all of us.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, some 10 percent of county residents are foreign-born, and nearly 16 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

Because there is no hospital in the county, patients often seek care in other counties, traveling 20 or 30 miles away.

Sang Bawi says many of his church members don’t speak English, so he’s been helping them with language interpretation for telehealth appointments. While there are some clinics in Louisa County, he says that many residents generally travel to hospitals in Iowa City or Muscatine when they need direct care.

State officials are working to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities in the area, and have said an Abbott rapid testing machine is being sent to the Community Centers of Southeastern Iowa Clinic in Columbus City.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday she’s sending 900 more tests to the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction in hopes of gauging the scope of the outbreak there.

Sang Bawi says some of his church members have started getting sick, but it’s not yet clear whether they have the virus as they await testing results. In the meantime, he says he’s urging his congregation to stay home, to practice hand hygiene and social distancing. And he’s urging them to pray.

“Our church…we have to pray for the state, we have to pray for the nation, we have to pray for our church members,” the pastor said. “They’re really concerned about it and the only thing that church members can do is pray.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter