Tyson Foods plant will receive 900 COVID-19 tests amid outbreak

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center on April 15, 2020, in Johnston. (Photo by Brian Powers/Pool, The Des Moines Register)

Following the spread of COVID-19 at Iowa’s meatpacking plants, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the state is sending 900 tests to a Tyson Foods plant in southeast Iowa with plans to trace the movement of employees who have tested positive for the virus so far.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported a surge of 189 additional positive cases Tuesday, with 86 of those stemming from employees at the Columbus Junction plant.

On April 6, Tyson Foods announced the suspension of operations at the plant, noting that two dozen employees at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, the company said it would keep the plant closed at least through the end of this week.

That same day, National Beef announced that it was suspending operations at its Iowa Premium plant in Tama until April 20, due to a COVID-19 outbreak among employees.

Reynolds has made initial contact with Iowa’s 18 food processing and manufacturing plants to provide guidance on how to avoid further outbreaks, but she said plant owners will take the lead on mitigation efforts.

“This is not only about feeding Iowans, but the world. They know they have a responsibility to be taking care of their employees,” Reynolds said.

To stem the spread of the virus, 900 COVID-19 test kits are going to the Columbus Junction plant for widespread tests, Reynolds said. 

Typically, Iowans who suspect they have COVID-19 need to show symptoms, but targeted testing at the plant aims to also identify asymptomatic carriers, said Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. Iowa has been unable to conduct widespread testing before this, due to a lack of testing kits, Reisetter said.

Beyond testing and interviewing employees who tested positive for COVID-19, Reynolds said she is speaking with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the Centers for Disease Control to see if they can provide additional assistance to Iowa’s meatpacking plants.

Latino and Hispanic and black Iowans are disproportionately testing positive for COVID-19, based on the state’s data. This reflects a nationwide trend, Reisetter said.

Ethnicity breakdowns show Hispanic and Latino Iowans make up 17.3% of positive cases, while a breakdown by race shows 9.2% of those who have tested positive are black.

These groups are more vulnerable to exposure due to working in businesses that have not been ordered to close, such as a meat processing plant, Reisetter said. Additionally, they are more likely to dwell in denser housing units, making social isolation difficult.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 96 additional positive cases for a total of 1,995 positive cases. An additional four deaths were also reported. Details about new cases and other monitoring data is available at coronavirus.iowa.gov

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.