Why didn’t Iowa accept CDC’s offer to help with meatpacking plant infections?

Iowa State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati, left, speaks at a news conference on March 25, 2020, accompanied by Gov. Kim Reynolds. (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo)

Iowa Department of Public Health officials aren’t saying why the state medical director rebuffed an offer of federal assistance to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants.

As the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported last month, Iowa’s state medical director, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regional COVID-19 response team on April 15. Pedati’s letter coincided with a rapidly growing issue in Iowa: infections at Tyson Foods and the state’s other meatpacking plants, where employees often worked shoulder to shoulder.

In her email, Pedati asked if she could “talk to someone about potential support for COVID-19 outbreaks in plants in Iowa.”

A CDC representative wrote back and asked for information on the number of Iowa plants involved and the number of infections. She also asked whether Pedati was seeking an on-site form of assistance or virtual help.

Pedati wrote back to say she would be seeking on-site assistance, but didn’t provide any of the requested information on the Iowa outbreaks. Instead, she suggested she and the CDC official speak by phone.

Several hours after the phone call took place, Pedati wrote to the federal agency again, this time to say she wouldn’t be seeking the CDC’s assistance with the meatpacking plants, at least for the time being.

She wrote: “We are still working on gathering a little more information from our partners, and so are not quite yet ready to make a request but if it’s OK I would like to keep in touch as things evolve.”

Five days later, on April 20, during her then-daily news conference, Gov. Kim Reynolds said publicly she had “been on the phone with the CEO and the management team for all Tyson plants to talk about what they’re doing proactively to make sure that they’re protecting their workforce, the strategies that they put in place to mitigate, to let them know that we do have the capacity to do surveillance testing.”

By then, the state had already confirmed outbreaks at the National Beef plant in Tama, and the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, and a suspected outbreak at the Tyson plant in Waterloo.

Nine hours after Reynolds’ press conference, the same CDC official Pedati had spoken to earlier wrote to Pedati and again offered the federal agency’s assistance with the meatpacking plant outbreaks.

The CDC official noted that in other states the CDC was helping in the meatpacking plants by coordinating the response and assisting with contact tracing, data entry, employee screening, foreign language barriers and other issues.

The available records give no indication of whether, or how, Pedati responded. An Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson did not respond to questions last month about the CDC’s offer, or to two separate follow-up inquiries.

Within two weeks of Pedati’s exchange with the CDC, more than 1,600 workers at four Iowa meatpacking plants were infected with COVID-19.

The IDPH emails were obtained through a public records request made by the government-watchdog organization Accountable U.S.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.