State vows to disclose COVID outbreaks at meat plants

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse on June 2, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/ Pool, Associated Press)

State health officials are working on a new system to alert Iowans about COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants. 

“We have been working on a more systematic process for being able to announce those outbreaks as they are detected,” said Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. She didn’t elaborate.

Her comments came at Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Tuesday news conference, which also covered the reconvening Legislature and recent protests in Des Moines. More on those below. 

The state’s refusal to announce coronavirus outbreaks at meat packing plants — which along with nursing homes are among the biggest sources of new COVID-19 cases — has been a recurring issue. The health department weeks ago said it would announce outbreaks at any meat plant where more than 10% of the workers tested positive, then abruptly and repeatedly said they would only discuss the outbreaks if reporters asked about them. 

On Tuesday, the Iowa City-based think tank Iowa Policy Project noted that all 11 of the Iowa counties with the equivalent of 10 or more confirmed cases per 100,000 residents through Monday have large pork, beef or turkey processing plants. All of the Iowa counties with a large pork plant were among the top 11 counties  in confirmed case counts.

With the exception of Taylor, counties bordering those with a meat plant also had high case counts, the group reported. 

Iowa Policy Project was co-founded by former Democratic lawmaker David Osterberg. Reynolds, a Republican, has received campaign donations from a number of agricultural powers, including $175,000 from Debra Hansen of pork giant Iowa Select Farms.

Peter Fisher, the policy group’s research director,  took Reynolds to task for not taking enough action to stem the meat-plant outbreaks that began in April at a Tyson plant in Columbus Junction and later hit plants in Perry, Waterloo, Storm Lake and Sioux City. 

On Tuesday, Reynolds said no new outbreaks had been reported. Tyson’s pork plant in Storm Lake closed last week and plans to reopen late this week after cleaning. The city had hundreds of COVID-19 cases in a short time. 

Reynolds also noted that TestIowa, the program run under a no-bid contract with Utah companies hired at the suggestion of Iowa-born actor Ashton Kutcher, set a record with more than 5,000 tests in Iowa in each of two days. 

When a reporter asked Reynolds about the high numbers of cases in counties with meatpacking plants, she said, “We have seen this consistently. When we see a little bit of virus activity, especially if it’s tied to a manufacturer, a processing plant, or long-term care facilities, then our ability to move testing in and start doing some surveillance testing to understand the scope” is important to separating those with COVID-19, Reynolds said.

“The majority of people, after their isolation period, are back at work. That allows us to reduce the capacity of the plants, to focus on the people who test negative, and to focus on getting the proper (personal protective equipment) and precautions in place,” she added.

Statewide, health officials have reported more than 200 confirmed cases per day for the past several days, including 300 yesterday. As of noon, Tuesday’s count was 16. 

The state reported two deaths Monday and eight Sunday. For Tuesday, none had been reported as of noon.

Reynolds also announced that the state is setting up six regional stockpiles for personal protective equipment, or PPE, for future outbreaks. Each will have a 30-day supply for each county in the region.

Reynolds: Protest related violence, vandalism won’t be tolerated. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday said the violence and vandalism that surrounded some protests this week “are not going to be tolerated.”

After praising those who protested the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police, Reynolds said, “At some events, agitators again attempted to detract from the message and resort to violence. While law enforcement disarmed most situations, damage did occur and arrests were made. These types of actions do absolutely nothing to create solutions and to move forward and they are not going to be tolerated.”

Floyd died after white officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes after Floyd was handcuffed and placed face-down on the pavement. An independent examiner ruled the death a homicide. Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and was immediately fired along with three other officers who were involved. 

Protests across the country have included four straight nights of events around Des Moines, marked by tear gas and police officers in riot gear.

Reynolds: State finances ‘solid’ as Legislature returns

Reynolds said that despite a new state projection that revenues will be down $65 million in the next fiscal year (0.8%), “it’s manageable.”

“Because of the fiscally responsible approach that we’ve taken to budgeting in recent years, we are in a solid position with cash reserves that are full,” Reynolds added.

Reynolds also gave a hint of how she will approach a shortened legislative session that was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s going to be important for us to continue budgeting conservatively, keeping the focus on key priorities that support Iowa’s economic recovery,” Reynolds said. Priorities include workforce development, mental health services and rural broadband access, she said.

The governor said her “complex” Invest in Iowa proposal — built on a sales tax increase paired with property tax cuts — “is on the back burner, but it will be back.” That leaves funding for mental health services, water quality and the popular REAP trails and public lands program, which expires this year, up in the air until lawmakers act.