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County Officials See COVID-19 Surge From Waterloo Meat Packing Plant; Governor Won't Close It

Amy Mayer
IPR file
Gov. Kim Reynolds has said there is a suspected COVID-19 outbreak at the Tyson plant in Waterloo. The Black Hawk County health director says about 150 of the plant's workers have tested positive.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday she will not order the Tyson hog processing facility in Waterloo to close, after some Democratic state lawmakers called for a temporary shutdown to protect workers from becoming infected with COVID-19. 

As of Monday, the state has confirmed two outbreaks in meat processing facilities: the National Beef-owned plant in Tama, and the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction that have affected hundreds of workers. State officials have said they consider more than 10 percent of employees at a business showing COVID-19 symptoms to be an outbreak. 

Reynolds has said there is a "suspected outbreak" at the Tyson plant in Waterloo, and state officials have declined to say how many COVID-19 cases are linked to that facility.

But local officials have said at least 150 cases in Black Hawk County are linked to the plant. Black Hawk County Public Health Director Nifassa Cisse-Egbuonye characterized the spike in cases as a “surge.”

“I can’t speak on behalf of Tyson or Gov. Reynolds but I do know that we here at Black Hawk County have seen the surge because of Tyson,” Cisse-Egbuoyne said. “At the moment I can confirm 151 cases from Tyson. But we’ve been…we are still backlogged in terms of just our investigation but we know the bulk of it are Tyson-related.”

Cisse-Egbuonye and county supervisors have said they do not have the legal authority to close down the plant, and that the governor could override them if they tried. So workers, advocates and elected officials have been urging Gov. Reynolds and the company to act.

In the meantime, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson says the spike in cases is rapidly depleting local stores of personal protection equipment. 

“The shift [in cases] that we experienced over Thursday of last week to now has changed the draw on the equipment,” Thompson said, saying that providers’ stocks of PPE that might have previously lasted seven days may now be used up in two days, due to the increased need. 

“We’re quite concerned,” he added.

At a press conference on Monday, Reynolds said the state’s meat processing plants are essential to keep operating as Iowa supplies a third of the nation’s pork.

“We should all be working on finding solutions to making sure that we are doing infectious control policies that we're making sure that the workforce is protected, and most importantly, that we're keeping that food supply chain moving,” she said.

Reynolds said she has been in contact with management at the state’s 18 meat packing facilities to ensure that they are offering workers protection and testing frequently. 

“They are doing disinfecting several times throughout the day. They're testing employees when they come in. Employees are not to enter the facility without a mask. They're providing mask and face shields,” she said.

But Reynolds said she anticipates more clusters of positive cases in places like meat packing plants where employees work in close proximity.

“Once the virus is introduced into this type of an environment it's very difficult to contain, but these also are essential businesses and an essential workforce,” she said.

Black Hawk County lawmakers call for Tyson plant closure

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, along with two other local lawmakers, filed a workplace safety complaint with Iowa OSHA on behalf of employees of the Tyson Fresh Meats processing plant in Waterloo. 

The complaint alleges Tyson “failed to protect its employees from exposure to a recognized COVID-19 hazard within their site.” 

Smith said he understands Reynolds’ concerns about the food supply chain, but taking action sooner will work better to keep it going through the pandemic. He said a few bad actors shouldn’t be allowed to counteract all the hard work Iowans have put in to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“It’s counterproductive for the governor to tell everyone to stay home, but then allow this kind of insidious behavior,” Smith said. 

Six Democratic lawmakers in the area, including Smith, signed a letter Friday calling on the Tyson hog processing plant in Waterloo to shut down for a safety evaluation. 

Their letter includes anonymous accounts from employees. A worker from the Columbus Junction Tyson plant that closed down because of a COVID-19 outbreak said they went to work in the Waterloo plant, and then tested positive there. 

Workers claim that Tyson isn’t providing enough personal protective equipment, social distancing isn’t being applied in all parts of the facility, there has been insufficient communication with non-English speaking employees, and that management has been slow to adopt CDC best practices. 

A Tyson employee who spoke with IPR before the lawmakers’ complaints were made public raised similar concerns about workplace safety.

“We are really, really close. Sometimes when I’m using a knife to cut the meat, I just feel somebody else’s hand pushing me or touching me,” an employee at a Tyson plant in eastern Iowa told IPR through an interpreter. The worker’s identity is being withheld because they fear retaliation.

“There’s so many people who have a lot of fear because the employers never mention about those people who are getting sick [with COVID-19],” they added. 

On Sunday, three Democratic state senators called on the state to protect meat processing workers. 

They’re asking the state labor commissioner to issue stricter requirements for worker safety in meatpacking plants, and for Iowa OSHA inspectors to immediately inspect each meat processing facility.

According to an OSHA database, inspections have not been initiated at any meatpacking plants since COVID-19 was detected in Iowa.

“What we’re seeing is borderline criminal,” Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said in a news release. “I represent workers who are telling me that even the voluntary precautions being taken aren’t doing anything. They’re having temperatures taken and the results ignored. These workers then go to work in close proximity throughout their shifts, go out into the community and expose community members, then go back into the plant where it starts all over again.” 

The Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO joined those calls Monday with a statement asking for new OSHA guidelines related to COVID-19, allowing workers who get COVID-19 to receive worker’s compensation, requiring plants that shut down due to a virus outbreak to continue paying employees and maintain health coverage, and to ramp up testing for essential workers.

The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction has been closed since April 6 after the virus spread through its workers. The plant has had nearly 200 confirmed cases and two deaths related to the virus.

Another facility operated by Iowa Premium Beef with 177 confirmed cases reopened Monday after suspending operations last week.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter
Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter