The Black Hawk County Board of Health is formally calling for the temporary closure of the Tyson meat processing plant in Waterloo. Local public health officials say an outbreak at the facility has led to soaring increases in cases of the new coronavirus. At an emergency meeting Tuesday, board members approved a resolution, saying that current conditions “will exacerbate — rapidly — the infection of its employees, their households, and the communities in which they reside." The board is urging the company and Gov. Kim Reynolds to take action to protect Tyson workers.
Pastor Belinda Creighton-Smith of Faith Temple American Baptist Church spoke in support of the resolution, and criticized the workplace conditions at Tyson, which she says have left workers “terrified” and are “putting team members’ lives on the line for production and profit."
Creighton-Smith said she was particularly troubled by the outbreak because so many of the employees at the plant are immigrants and refugees.
“What grieves my heart is we have human beings running from war-torn countries, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, human trafficking, running to the United States for a better way of life, only to die as a result of being infected with this covid virus,” Creighton-Smith said.
There are no confirmed cases of employees of the Waterloo plant dying from COVID-19. Tyson has confirmed that two workers at its Columbus Junction facility have died of the disease.
Advocates hope the company and state leaders will take decisive action to protect workers’ health.
“I just shudder to think what could happen and I’d rather be safe rather than sorry,” said Black Hawk County NAACP President LaTanya Graves. “So I’m just asking you to do whatever you can to ensure that people do not lose their lives for being forced to work.”
Board member and physician Adam Froyum Roise said he’s heard a number of complaints from Tyson employees. His voice seemed to fill with emotion as he spoke of workers with fevers being sent back out to the production floor to keep working.
“I talked to people yesterday who, who come in as sick and have tested COVID positive and do say they have not received a single piece of communication from Tyson or from anybody else on what they’re supposed to do, about what they’re supposed to do about work, whether they go back to work,” Froyum Roise said. “It just seems there is a complete lack of communication.”
“And this is among people who speak English as a first language,” he added. “I can’t imagine what it is for those…for those workers who don't understand English.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Black Hawk County Public Health Department Director Nafissa Cisse-Egbuonye said that language interpreters at the plant are among those employees who have not been reporting to work as the virus has spread through the facility.
A Tyson spokesperson has said the company is taking steps to insulate workers from the disease, such as installing workstation dividers, providing personal protective gear, and conducting additional cleaning.
“We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people across the country,” a written statement from spokeswoman Liz Croston reads in part.
Cisse-Egbuonye has said that when she and other county officials toured the plant on April 10th, not all workers had personal protective gear, or were using it in a way that was ineffective. Efforts at social distancing were also inadequate, she said.
“We saw employees that were working that were really…they were all close to each other,” Cisse-Egbuonye said. “We witnessed the difficulty of social distancing in Tyson. And that is also something that they acknowledge.”
Based on legal analysis by county staff, board officials say they do not have the legal authority to close the plant, and that that power is reserved for Gov. Kim Reynolds. The governor has said repeatedly that she wants to keep the Waterloo plant and others in the state open in order to sustain the national food supply chain and to continue moving hogs from Iowa farms to consumers.
Asked by a reporter Tuesday why she believes it’s worth risking the health of workers to keep the plants open, Reynolds responded that most Americans are expected to contract the disease anyway.
“We want to make sure that we’re protecting the health and wellbeing of all Iowans. And I want people to know that probably 50 to 70 percent of the United States population is projected to get this. So people are going to get it,” she said. “And 80 percent of the individuals that get it are only going to experience mild or no symptoms, so we shouldn’t lose sight of that as well.”
At Tuesday’s board of health meeting, which was held before Reynolds’ daily press conference, Creighton-Smith spoke directly to the governor’s previous statements warning that farmers may have to euthanize hogs if plants were shuttered.
“Yesterday in her press conference she expressed a concern about having to euthanize 50 percent of the hogs,” Creighton-Smith said. “My concern is that if we don’t close this plant down we will…we will find ourselves with a number of those whom we love, dead in their homes, or on ventilators, dying from this virus.”
Iowa saw the largest single-day increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases so far on Tuesday, a total of 482 new cases according to state data. Thirty-three percent of those cases are linked to surveillance of meat processing plants, Reynolds said.
As the state’s confirmed cases continue soar, fueled by outbreaks in meat processing facilities and long-term care centers, the disproportionate infection rates among people of color continue to rise as well.
As of Tuesday, black Iowans make up 13 percent of documented cases, and 4 percent of the overall population. Iowans who identify as Hispanic or Latino make up 20 percent of confirmed cases, and are 6 percent of the state’s general population.