State medical director: CDC help ‘wasn’t needed’ with packing-plant outbreaks

Tyson workers have had plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

State Medical Director Caitlin Pedati said Friday she never accepted an offer of federal assistance to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants because Iowa didn’t need the help.

Emails from federal agencies show that on April 15, Pedati declined an offer of on-site assistance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with regard to COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa’s meatpacking plants. But it hasn’t been clear why that offer was rejected or whether Pedati ultimately accepted the CDC’s offer.

Iowa Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati is also the state epidemiologist.

On Friday, the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked Pedati whether the CDC’s offer was ever accepted, and she said it was not. Asked why she had rejected the offer, she said the federal agency’s assistance wasn’t needed.

“We were working closely with our local partners to provide testing and implement strategies within different manufacturing sites to help limit the spread,” she said. “And we were able to do those things with our local partners and so, at the time, the additional assistance wasn’t needed.”

On April 20, the CDC extended a second offer of on-site assistance to Pedati, noting that in other states, the federal agency 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. Pedati says she declined that offer.

Within two weeks, 58% of the employees at the Tyson Food plant in Perry had tested positive for the virus, which translated to 730 infections. By then, more than 1,600 workers at four Iowa plants had been infected with the coronavirus.

By mid-May, the Environmental Working Group had analyzed CDC data on infections and found that plants in Iowa were hit harder than those in any other state. At that point, there had been eight confirmed outbreaks in Iowa meatpacking plants. Those outbreaks involved 1,784 infected workers — a number that equaled 18% of all infections in Iowa at that time.

As of mid-June, more than 24,000 coronavirus cases had been tied to meatpacking plants nationwide, according to ProPublica, and at least 87 workers had died. The families of three workers who died after contracting COVID-19 at Tyson Foods’ Waterloo plant have sued the company for allegedly putting employees at risk.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch has requested access to all written communications that Pedati sent to, or received from, either the CDC, the top two administrators at the IDPH, or the governor’s office during April and May.

The Iowa Department of Public Health says it will charge $9,893.68 to have a lawyer review the emails and determine whether they should be publicly disclosed.

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.