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Coronavirus cuts 'deep scars' through meatpacking cities

FILE - This undated file photo shows Tyson Foods meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (Jeff Reinitz/The Courier via AP, File)

The coronavirus is devastating the nation’s meatpacking communities — places like Waterloo and Sioux City in Iowa, Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.

Posted: May 5, 2020 4:59 AM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — As the coronavirus spread from the nation’s meatpacking plants to the broader communities where they are located, it burned through a modest duplex in Waterloo, Iowa.

In the downstairs unit lived Jim Orvis, 65, a beloved friend and uncle who worked in the laundry department at the Tyson Foods pork processing facility, the largest employer in Waterloo. Upstairs was Arthur Scott, a 51-year-old father who was getting his life back on track after a prison term for drugs. He worked 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) away at the Tyson dog treats factory in Independence, Iowa.

The two men were not well acquainted. But both fell ill and died last month within days of each other from COVID-19 — casualties of an outbreak linked to the Waterloo plant that spread across the city of 68,000 people. Similar spread is happening in other communities where the economy centers around raising hogs and cattle and processing their meat, including the hot spots of Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.

The virus is “devastating everything,” said duplex owner Jose Garcia, who received notification two days apart from his deceased tenants' relatives. “These two guys were here last week. Now they are gone. It's crazy."

He said it's possible one of the men infected the other because they shared an entryway, or that they each contracted the virus separately at their workplaces.

The virus threatens the communities' most vulnerable populations, including low-income workers and their extended families.

“They’re afraid of catching the virus. They’re afraid of spreading it to family members. Some of them are afraid of dying,” said the Rev. Jim Callahan, of the Church of St. Mary of Worthington, a city of 13,000 that has attracted immigrants from across the globe to work at the JBS pork processing plant.

“One guy said to me, ‘I risked my life coming here. I never thought something that I can’t see could take me out.’”

In Grand Island, an outbreak linked to a JBS beef plant that is the city's largest employer spread rapidly across the rural central Nebraska region, killing more than three dozen people. Many of the dead were elderly residents of long-term care facilities who had relatives or friends employed at the plant.

In Waterloo, local officials blame Tyson for endangering not only its workers and their relatives but everyone else who leaves home to work or get groceries. They are furious with the state and federal governments for failing to intervene — and for pushing hard to reopen the plant days after public pressure helped shut it down.

“We were failed by people who put profit margins and greed before people, predominantly brown people, predominantly immigrants, predominantly people who live in lower socioeconomic quarters,” said Jonathan Grieder, a high school social studies teacher who serves on Waterloo’s city council. “This is going to be with us for so long. There are going to be very deep scars in our community.”

Grieder cried as he recounted how one of his former students, 19, lost her father to the coronavirus and has been left to raise two younger siblings. Their mother died of cancer last September.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said he first became concerned after touring the Tyson plant April 10 and witnessing inadequate social distancing and a lack of personal protective equipment. As hundreds of workers began getting sick or staying home out of fear, Thompson joined the mayor and scores of local officials in asking Tyson to close the plant temporarily on April 16.

But Tyson, with support from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, waited until April 22 to announce that step after the outbreak intensified. The company warned of the significant economic consequences even a temporary shutdown would create.

The plant, which can process 19,500 hogs per day, is now poised to resume production after President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to require meatpackers to stay open.

Reynolds and Tyson have argued the plant with 2,800 workers is critical to the nation’s pork supply and the regional farmers who sell millions of hogs to Tyson.

In three weeks, Black Hawk County’s cases skyrocketed from 62 to 1,523 — more than 1% of its 132,000 residents. Deaths rose from zero to 15. Ninety percent of the cases are “attributed or related to the plant,” the county’s public health director said.

Tyson has not released the number of workers who tested positive but said that “workplace safety continues to be a top priority.”

Thompson said the plant's outbreak decimated the community's “first line of defense" and allowed the virus to spread to nursing homes and the jail he oversees. “These are the places we did not want to fight the COVID-19 virus," he said.

The losses are quickly mounting.

A refugee from Bosnia died days after falling sick while working on the Tyson production line, leaving behind her heartbroken husband. The virus also took an intellectually disabled man who died at 73, years after escaping forced labor at an Iowa turkey plant and happily retiring to Waterloo.

Scott, who went by the nickname Dontae, was planning to reunite in June with two teenage children he had not seen in person since he was incarcerated on federal drug charges in 2011.

A former small-time heroin distributor who suffered from addiction, he and his wife divorced during his prison term, and she moved to Mississippi with the children. Since his 2018 release, friends said he was doing well and rebuilding relationships.

Scott told his daughter, Destiny Proctor, 18, that he suspected he became infected at the Tyson pet food factory, which has stayed open under federal guidance classifying the industry as critical infrastructure.

Proctor and her 15-year-old brother were looking forward to living with their dad this summer. Instead, their final talk was a video call from a hospital where he struggled to talk.

“It was so, so sad,” said Proctor, who described her father as funny and caring and frequently sending her cards and gifts. “He told me he couldn’t breathe.”

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 441935

Reported Deaths: 5885
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin918591461
Ramsey39405729
Dakota32551324
Anoka30638354
Washington19827221
Stearns17686184
St. Louis13453237
Scott1178693
Wright11485101
Olmsted1024870
Sherburne812364
Carver686636
Clay643278
Rice595266
Kandiyohi551069
Blue Earth533833
Crow Wing476573
Otter Tail449860
Chisago446331
Benton414885
Winona383946
Douglas370366
Nobles364646
Mower358026
Goodhue340757
Polk326754
McLeod321644
Morrison308743
Beltrami305746
Lyon298735
Itasca281143
Becker279438
Isanti279440
Carlton276942
Steele26879
Pine263813
Freeborn237219
Todd230029
Nicollet222136
Brown212334
Mille Lacs211645
Le Sueur206515
Cass203823
Meeker197433
Waseca187515
Martin168226
Wabasha16712
Roseau164916
Hubbard146937
Redwood138527
Renville136139
Houston133213
Dodge13134
Chippewa130632
Cottonwood125118
Fillmore12084
Wadena118214
Rock108511
Sibley10757
Aitkin106633
Watonwan10548
Faribault103214
Kanabec96818
Pennington95915
Pipestone92522
Yellow Medicine92514
Murray8585
Jackson84510
Swift82617
Pope7355
Marshall70115
Stevens6968
Clearwater68114
Lac qui Parle65216
Lake62215
Wilkin6179
Koochiching57910
Lincoln4771
Big Stone4513
Unassigned43568
Grant4247
Norman4218
Mahnomen4077
Kittson36619
Red Lake3154
Traverse2433
Lake of the Woods1741
Cook1130

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 300884

Reported Deaths: 4197
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk44949440
Linn17563269
Scott15228161
Black Hawk13552228
Woodbury12896175
Johnson1191749
Dubuque11229148
Pottawattamie8863112
Dallas874169
Story857433
Webster464768
Cerro Gordo458766
Sioux452451
Clinton445461
Warren430637
Marshall424561
Buena Vista389029
Muscatine382275
Des Moines377340
Plymouth347967
Wapello336796
Jasper315955
Lee310828
Marion298852
Jones268949
Henry262130
Carroll252233
Bremer240048
Crawford227622
Boone214116
Washington213531
Benton207543
Mahaska189936
Jackson189631
Tama184757
Dickinson183225
Delaware171136
Kossuth169241
Clay165319
Wright161724
Fayette157022
Buchanan156920
Hamilton156828
Hardin153129
Harrison152961
Winneshiek150819
Clayton149848
Cedar149119
Butler145423
Page143115
Floyd137236
Cherokee137125
Mills135216
Lyon133132
Poweshiek131024
Hancock127924
Allamakee125927
Iowa122122
Calhoun12159
Jefferson118623
Grundy118522
Winnebago117229
Madison11639
Mitchell114634
Louisa113729
Cass111741
Chickasaw110111
Sac110115
Emmet109931
Appanoose108838
Union107922
Humboldt103919
Guthrie102124
Shelby101026
Franklin99818
Unassigned9370
Palo Alto8969
Keokuk84225
Montgomery82722
Howard81119
Monroe79918
Pocahontas77211
Clarke7717
Ida73530
Greene6837
Davis68221
Adair68120
Lucas6458
Osceola6349
Monona62316
Taylor5889
Worth5873
Fremont5005
Van Buren49112
Decatur4744
Ringgold4229
Wayne41321
Audubon4118
Adams2923
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