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Nebraska Beef Plant Boosted Coronavirus Cases In An Iowa County, But Neither State Would Disclose It

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AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
The Tyson plant in Dakota City, Neb. had nearly 800 COVID-19 cases in May. Tyson operates several processing plants in Iowa, including this one in Waterloo, where more than 1,000 workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Health officials in Woodbury County struggled for weeks with what to do about a Tyson meatpacking plant in Nebraska that contributed to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the region. Emails from April show that Woodbury County health officials were very concerned about the outbreak at the plant but couldn't say anything publicly at the time. 

The trend in COVID-19 cases in Woodbury County and Nebraska’s Dakota County appears to be flattening, with 47 new cases in Dakota County the week of May 31 and 139 new cases in Woodbury County that week. Dakota County has a population of 20,000 while Woodbury County has a population of 103,000.

As of 1 p.m. Monday, Dakota County had 1,720 positive COVID-19 cases and 27 deaths. Woodbury County had approximately 2,930 COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths.

But in late April, when both counties started seeing a rapid rise of dozens to hundreds of new COVID-19 cases between them in a given day, officials with Woodbury County’s health department, Siouxland District Health Department, started to sound the alarm to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Siouxland District Health officials pointed to the Tyson Fresh Meats beef facility across the Missouri River in Dakota City, which, as of May 29, has 786 “active COVID cases,” according to a company statement on that day. The facility employs approximately 4,300 workers and 200 contractors and is one of the largest beef processing facilities in the nation, according to Tyson.

Emails IPR obtained from Siouxland District Health through a Freedom of Information Act request redacted any mention of Tyson due to Iowa code that the local health department says prevents them from releasing the name of a business involved in a disease outbreak. But IPR was able to confirm they were talking about the Tyson plant through a separate records request with Dakota County Health Department. 

"Ramifications on the Iowa side of the border"

In an April 20 email that Siouxland District Health Department Health Director Kevin Grieme sent to IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter and three other state health officials, Grieme gave a picture of contact tracing the department conducted on Woodbury County’s rising COVID-19 cases (then just 75 total cases). He related the spike to the Tyson beef plant a mile over the border in Nebraska.

“Although this is a Nebraska facility with (redacted) employees, we have been informed that 50% of their workforce are Iowa residents,” Grieme wrote. “In addition to this, because of our tri-state location, the majority of all healthcare facilities are located in Iowa.”

Grieme did not request any resources from the state, but said he wanted to make Reisetter and the other health officials “aware of the situation and that although it is a Nebraska facility, it has created ramifications on the Iowa side of the border.” 

Four days after Grieme emailed IDPH, the Sioux City metro area became the top coronavirus hotspot in the country, according to the New York Times, for its fast-growing number of COVID-19 cases.

On April 27, Woodbury and Dakota counties together were “rapidly approaching 1,000 cases,” wrote Siouxland District Health Director of Environmental Health Michelle Clausen-Rosendahl in an email to Ken Sharp, IDPH’s division director of Acute Disease Prevention, Emergency Response and Environmental Health, and Carmily Stone, a bureau chief with the state’s Bureau of Environmental Health Services. The subject line of Clausen-Rosendahl’s email was “urgent request” and she asked them for a phone call.

“We are experiencing an extreme increase in COVID-19 cases in Woodbury County, and in the surrounding area. The vast majority of these cases are linked to (redacted),” wrote Clausen-Rosendahl, referring to Tyson Fresh Meats in Dakota City. “Because of the location not being within the state of Iowa, this has posed come [sic] significant challenges to us.” 

We would love nothing more than to be able to get on top of this situation and be transparent, but our hands are tied with the law in Iowa and with the facility being located in Nebraska. -Siouxland District Health's Michelle Clausen-Rosendahl wrote to IDPH on April 27

Clausen-Rosendahl referenced a statement from the mayors of five cities in the metro area calling on the county and state health departments to “provide more comprehensive reporting data” on COVID-19 cases by including specific businesses with outbreaks. The mayors also requested that businesses “take responsibility” for an outbreak or spread in their workplace.

“We would love nothing more than to be able to get on top of this situation and be transparent, but our hands are tied with the law in Iowa and with the facility being located in Nebraska,” Clausen-Rosendahl wrote. “We are reaching out for help, but are trying to get that request into the right hands.”

Clausen-Rosendahl, in an earlier email on April 24 to IDPH emergency preparedness planner Alex Carfrae, with the subject line “talking points”, pointed out many Tyson Fresh Meats employees live in Iowa “and the ones that live in Nebraska, along with their family members, shop, seek medical care, and may also work in Iowa.”

“We would also like to ask the state of Iowa to work cooperatively with the state of Nebraska to help mitigate the spread of the virus in our community,” Clausen-Rosendahl wrote.

Because of Woodbury County’s rapidly rising coronavirus cases, the state set up a Test Iowa site in Sioux City that began testing Iowans for COVID-19 on May 4. But testing statistics Siouxland District Health released showed the site was underused compared to a drive-thru testing location run by Siouxland Community Health Center in Sioux City. The Test Iowa site closed May 22.

One meatpacking facility, two states with different policies on disclosing COVID-19 outbreaks at businesses

Though frequently asked by members of the press to release the name of any business behind the coronavirus spike, Siouxland District Health declined, drawing attention to Iowa code that prevents a local health department from disclosing a business that has a disease outbreak. IDPH's emergency prepardness planner Alex Carfrae wrote to Sioux City-area media on April 27 that Iowa state health officials wouldn’t name Tyson Fresh Meats in Dakota City as an employer behind Woodbury County’s spike in COVID-19 cases because it’s not located in-state. 

IDPH Director Gerd Clabaugh or State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati determine “such a disclosure is necessary to protect the public,” Carfrae wrote. The state has disclosed businesses where there have been COVID-19 outbreaks if 10 percent or more of a business’ workforce is impacted.

“Dr. Pedati will generally authorize the release of the name of a business in other states if either the federal government or the state public health department in the other state has publicly identified the business,” Carfrae wrote. 

What we've found is some people will go and say they work for a facility and they've tested positive, when they don't work for that facility; some people maybe tested positive and they won't tell you they work for that facility. -Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts during a May 7 news conference

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts has left it up to local health departments to release data on food processing facilities’ COVID-19 cases. But on May 7, he cautioned against it. Ricketts said the state would only report aggregate data on food processing plants, NET Nebraska reported.

“Local health departments have the option to decide how they’re going to present that data,” Ricketts said May 7. “But what we recommend is for our local health departments to only present that data if it has been verified and you’ve got permission from that facility. Because what we’ve found is some people will go and say they work for a facility and they’ve tested positive, when they don’t work for that facility; some people maybe tested positive and they won’t tell you they work for that facility.”

Dakota County Public Health had already chosen not to release the number of COVID-19 cases at the Tyson plant. But in an April 27 email to Derry Stover, an epidemiologist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and two other Nebraska DHHS employees, Dakota County Health Department Director Natasha Ritchison said she was receiving “a lot of pressure locally” to share the number of COVID-19 cases at Tyson. Ritchison said she had made the decision to “not disclose employers” when the county began seeing positive cases that month.

“Now that the numbers have risen so much I am wondering if I should reconsider my previous decision not to release numbers,” Ritchison wrote to Stover. “Our neighboring county has also decided not to release exact numbers to the community, Woodbury County- Siouxland District Health Department. Should I continue to withhold the employers number? If I disclose Tyson numbers would I then need to release the numbers from other factories that we have locally? Which then leads me to think where does that stop, would I also release cases of staff at nursing homes, grocery stores, etc.?”

786 “active” COVID-19 cases at Tyson Fresh Meats as of May 29

Tyson Fresh Meats released the number of COVID-19 cases at the Dakota City Facility – 786 – on May 29 for the first time, four weeks after it temporarily paused production at the facility for six days to deep clean it and test workers for COVID-19. The company began testing workers on April 29 with the Nebraska National Guard. Asked why it took the company longer to release COVID-19 case numbers at this facility compared to other ones, Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston told IPR that the company’s large workforce, spread out across Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, complicated things. 

“Since late April, Tyson has been conducting a large-scale COVID-19 testing effort at our Dakota City facility,” Croston said. “A number of factors, primarily related to the size of our workforce and our tri-state location, have increased the complexity of our testing process, and we do not yet have a complete, verified data set. We have 4,500 team members and contractors who live across 11 counties in the tri-state area.”

Croston said the number of COVID-19 cases at the Tyson beef facility continues to decline. The company resumed two shifts of its operations and fewer employees are on leave of absence, she said.

“Tyson has seen substantial improvement at our Dakota City facility since we began large-scale COVID-19 testing efforts in late April, and we are well past the peak of active COVID-19 cases at the facility,” Croston said.

It’s unclear how many of the 786 Tyson workers who had or currently have COVID-19 live in Woodbury County, how many live in Dakota County, or live in the nine other counties in the Tri-State area. It’s also unknown how many of Dakota and Woodbury County’s COVID-19 cases were spread within the community after originating at the Tyson plant.

As of Monday, 75 percent of Dakota County’s total 1,720 COVID-19 cases have recovered. In Woodbury County, 72 percent of the county’s cases are considered recovered.