At least 1,653 Iowa meatpacking employees test positive for COVID-19

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, on May 5, 2020. Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter, is pictured at left. (Photo by Olivia Sun/Pool, The Des Moines Register)

Iowa is known for its agriculture and meat production, but workers in those industries are now facing some of the highest positive rates of COVID-19 as the state releases data of workplaces where outbreaks are occurring.

On Tuesday, Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, reported the names of five businesses where 10% or more of their workforce tested positive for COVID-19. Businesses are required to report to IDPH if at least 10% of their workforce has reported symptoms of COVID-19, tested positive or has had close exposure.

Four out of the five facilities are meatpacking plants:

  • Tyson Foods Inc. in Columbus Junction: 221 employees or 26% of employees tested
  • Iowa Premium National Beef in Tama: 258 positive cases or 39% of employees tested
  • Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo: 444 positive cases or 17% of employees tested
  • Tyson Fresh Meats in Perry: 730 positive cases or 58% of employees tested
  • TPI Composites in Newton: 131 positive cases of 13% of employees tested

During her news conference on Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked if employers at the facilities with outbreaks took proper precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 prior to the spread. Reynolds, did not directly answer the question but said there’s a variety of other ways the virus can spread, including at home or through the community.

Reynolds said she personally contacts the facilities every couple of weeks, while her staff speaks with the employers on a daily basis to see if they need more resources, like personal protective equipment. For the businesses she’s talked to, Reynolds said they’re instituting mitigation efforts like requiring employees to wear masks, taking temperature scans, installing partitions and loosening attendance policies.

So far, Tyson has publicly announced that two of its employees died due to COVID-19 at its Columbus Junction plant.

“They’re working really diligently with their employees because they know it’s important to keep that workforce safe and healthy,” Reynolds said 

Worker conditions at meatpacking facilities have become a national concern as plants close or partially suspend operations, resulting in disruptions in the supply chain and grocery store shelves.

After a two week closure, the Tyson Plant in Columbus Junction resumed “limited operations” on April 20 with plants to “gradually” increase operations, according to a news release.

Two days later, on April 22, Tyson temporarily closed its Waterloo plant because of reduced work production due to worker absences. 

Iowa Premium National Beef temporarily closed amid an outbreak, but it also reopened on April 20.

It’s unknown if or how many employees at Iowa’s other meatpacking plants have tested positive for COVID-19. Employers do not have to report to the state if less than 10% of employees are absent or reporting symptoms. 

The 10% threshold stems from the state’s practices for influenza outbreaks, Reisetter said.

While there are some similarities between COVID-19 and the flu, the World Health Organization reports there are also major differences. For example, COVID-19 has higher rates of severe cases and people who contract the flu show signs more quickly than those with COVID-19.

In response to the outbreaks and processing plant closures, Iowa landfills are preparing for an increase of hog carcasses and grocery stores are limiting customers’ meat purchases.

“We’ll do everything that we can to keep this critical infrastructure up and moving, but most importantly, making sure that we’re also taking care of that essential and critical workforce that’s standing on the front line to make sure Iowans have food on the table,” Reynolds said.