Black Hawk County officials say more than a thousand employees of the Tyson plant in Waterloo have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s more than double the total that state officials reported earlier this week. The announcement comes the same day the company resumed limited operations at its pork plant in Waterloo, which was idled for two weeks following public outcry.
On Tuesday, state public health officials said 444 employees at the Tyson plant in Waterloo had tested positive. On Thursday, Black Hawk County Public Health Department officials said their total was 1,031 workers.
Health department staff said their tally includes more kinds of testing than the state apparently included in its announcement.
“The 1,031 reported cases includes those positive results from the onsite testing, positive test results from local healthcare providers here in Black Hawk County, as well as positive serology tests that give us the complete picture of scope of illness in our county,” said Joshua Pikora, the county’s Disease Surveillance and Investigation Manager.
Still, Pikora said that county’s number give a more complete picture of the outbreak.
“The 444 cases reported by the governor were confirmed PCR positive cases done onsite at…from the onsite testing at Tyson,” Pikora said.
The total of 1,031 positive cases only includes Tyson employees, Pikora said, and does not include family members or roommates of workers who also may have contracted the virus. It likewise does not include Tyson workers who commute to Waterloo but live in another county.
County public health officials have said that Tyson’s operations fueled a surge in cases in the area, and that 90 percent of the county’s cases can be linked to the facility. As of Thursday, the county had 1,703 confirmed cases and 21 residents had died of COVID-19.
The announcement comes as the company defends its decision to resume limited production at the Waterloo plant, its largest pork facility in the country, which employs some 2,800 people.
“I want to assure the public, our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their loved ones and our community here in Waterloo,” said local plant manager Tom Hart. “We’ll continue to do everything that we can to keep our team members safe, and to ensure that the spread is not happening inside our plant.”
When asked how the company would determine if another closure would be necessary, Group President of the Tyson Fresh Meats Division Steve Stouffer said production levels depend on worker safety.
“Our whole premise is centered around, are we capable of running the plant with a process that’s in control that will keep our team members safe? That’s the way we came into the covid pandemic situation and that’s the way we will go out of it,” said Stouffer, adding that production line speeds could be adjusted if needed.
Local leaders praised the company’s efforts to sanitize the facility, to install plastic sheeting around workstations on the production line, to issue more personal protective gear to workers, and to contract with the Arizona-based company Matrix Medical Network. The company has established an onsite mobile clinic staffed by nurse practitioners to provide daily screenings and additional coronavirus testing.
“My message out there is to all the packing plants in the United States, if you want a model to model your plant after, Tyson Waterloo is the model to look after,” Bob Waters, president of Local 431 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. “I 100 percent endorse the plant reopening up.”
The plant is a major employer, attracting workers from Black Hawk County and neighboring counties, many of whom are immigrants and refugees. The facility, and others like it in the state, have long been a place where people from Mexico, Bosnia, Burma and Liberia could get a steady job and a foothold into the middle class, working alongside native Iowans and union members.
But some workers told IPR the virus has made them afraid to return to work, citing a lack of communication from the company about who has tested positive.
While some local officials say they’re hopeful the changes implemented will be sufficient to protect workers’ health, they remain cautious.
“Building up trust from the company with employees, and them feeling safe, that’s the responsibility of the company to do that,” said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart. “I am hoping and praying that these practices help shield everyone, not just there but throughout our entire community.”
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompon said the company deserves “credit” for the work it did in making safety updates he described as “massive." But Thompson told IPR that Tyson is not absolved of responsibility for the role it played in fueling the spread of the virus.
“My county has over 1,600 positive tests and we now have 20 dead,” Thompson said Thursday morning, referencing numbers that were current at the time. “There is responsibility for that and I am not in any way, shape or form alleviating that responsibility. Tyson owns a lot of that responsibility.”