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Outbreak at Iowa pork plant was larger than state reported

One of the first coronavirus outbreaks at an Iowa meatpacking plant was more severe than previously known, with over twice as many workers becoming infected than the Iowa Department of Public Health publicly confirmed.

Posted: Jul 22, 2020 10:51 AM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The first confirmed coronavirus outbreak at an Iowa meatpacking plant was far more severe than previously known, with more than twice as many workers becoming infected than the state Department of Public Health told the public, newly released records show.

The department announced at a May 5 news conference that 221 employees at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction had tested positive for COVID-19.

But days earlier, Tyson officials told Iowa workplace safety regulators during an inspection that 522 plant employees had been infected to their knowledge, documents obtained through the open records law show.

A dozen of the plant’s roughly 1,300 workers were believed to have been hospitalized by then, and two died after contracting the virus, Tyson officials told the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The discrepancy adds to mounting questions that the state health department faces about its handling of public information during the pandemic. The department last week forced out its longtime spokeswoman, who said she was ousted for pushing hard to fulfill media requests and that the agency's delays and scripted talking points were embarrassing.

The agency has also faced criticism for seeking to charge thousands of dollars for open records requests and for not routinely announcing outbreaks in workplaces, among other things. The department said it has “gone above and beyond to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information” to the public.

The early April outbreak in Columbus Junction was the first of several at meatpacking plants across the state as the virus spread through crowded workplaces.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds took a pro-industry approach to managing those outbreaks in Iowa, the top pork-producing state. She worked with executives to continue production even as thousands of workers became infected and some died, and she applauded President Donald Trump's order to keep such plants open throughout the country.

On May 5, Reynolds said at her then-daily news briefing that the public health department had been compiling data from surveillance testing to track outbreaks, which the state defines as at least 10 percent of employees absent or ill.

She turned over the podium to health department's deputy director, Sarah Reisetter, who said the Tyson plants in Columbus Junction, Perry and Waterloo and two other workplaces had confirmed outbreaks. Reisetter said the Waterloo plant had 444 positive cases, but county officials said days later it actually had more than 1,000.

As for Columbus Junction, department spokeswoman Amy McCoy said the 221 case figure announced by Reisetter reflected the results of the department’s testing and what it “could verify from our data systems" at the time.

“Keep in mind, we had just established an outbreak definition, and wanted to share the information we had available,” she said. “Since that initial round of testing back in April, the testing reporting process has significantly improved.”

The department never updated the number of confirmed infections in Columbus Junction. Unlike outbreaks at long-term care facilities, the department does not post workplace outbreaks on the state’s coronavirus website.

At the May 5 briefing, Reisetter said that the 221 cases reflected 26 percent of those tested, which would be 850 total tests.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the number of infections announced by the state appeared to reflect only the first round of testing at the plant and that additional testing had uncovered hundreds of more cases.

“Coordinating facility-wide testing and obtaining results is a complex process that takes time,” he said.

But it's unclear why the department would not have the full testing results that Tyson described to Iowa OSHA. The department, along with county health officials, had conducted the mass testing of workers weeks earlier.

Tyson officials said they learned of the first case in Columbus Junction on April 1 and idled the plant four days later after 29 workers tested positive, according to an Iowa OSHA inspection report.

The governor sent 1,100 testing kits to the county for testing during the two-week shutdown. The plant reopened April 20 with new safety measures, and Mickelson said the company isn't aware of any current infections there.

Iowa OSHA opened an inquiry after seeing media reports that two workers had died from the virus and inspected the plant on April 30, walking through and meeting with several Tyson officials.

“There were 522 positive COVID-19 cases to the best of the company’s knowledge,” the inspection report says.

Tyson's plant manager told inspectors that communication between the company and public health officials was “not efficient” and that information about the positive cases wasn't available for days after testing, the report said.

Iowa OSHA did not cite Tyson for any workplace safety violations, saying the company “was trying to follow the best CDC guidance at the given time” and recommendations were rapidly changing.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 488170

Reported Deaths: 6602
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1012851589
Ramsey43273808
Dakota36543394
Anoka33430390
Washington22183261
Stearns18786202
St. Louis14866265
Scott13381107
Wright12580116
Olmsted1184890
Sherburne877174
Carver783241
Clay694587
Rice672291
Blue Earth599635
Kandiyohi580674
Crow Wing522782
Chisago501045
Otter Tail485570
Benton449290
Winona420049
Mower410031
Douglas393768
Goodhue388069
Nobles387147
Polk344663
McLeod340550
Beltrami338751
Morrison326247
Itasca314246
Becker313942
Lyon313844
Isanti308256
Steele303011
Carlton300249
Freeborn285824
Pine282616
Nicollet261541
Todd249230
Brown247237
Le Sueur237420
Mille Lacs229047
Cass221024
Waseca210117
Meeker208134
Martin190629
Wabasha18713
Roseau180917
Hubbard160741
Houston158114
Dodge15384
Renville151640
Redwood147127
Fillmore13908
Pennington137716
Chippewa136835
Cottonwood135920
Wadena131320
Faribault124517
Aitkin119233
Watonwan11798
Sibley117610
Rock116114
Kanabec108119
Pipestone101824
Yellow Medicine97717
Murray9538
Jackson94210
Swift87818
Pope8095
Marshall78415
Stevens7468
Lake74218
Clearwater71914
Lac qui Parle68616
Wilkin67711
Koochiching62111
Big Stone5163
Lincoln5122
Grant4918
Norman4788
Unassigned44768
Mahnomen4437
Kittson40921
Red Lake3615
Traverse3105
Lake of the Woods2221
Cook1180

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 336947

Reported Deaths: 5491
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk51993559
Linn19497317
Scott17149212
Black Hawk14956293
Woodbury13828214
Johnson1314875
Dubuque12444195
Dallas1021893
Pottawattamie9877146
Story963545
Warren514076
Clinton502184
Cerro Gordo500683
Webster495588
Sioux479869
Marshall464273
Des Moines427961
Muscatine425693
Buena Vista412637
Wapello4042110
Jasper387267
Plymouth368578
Lee354453
Marion341171
Jones285055
Henry279837
Bremer270255
Carroll266649
Crawford253535
Boone244030
Benton240854
Washington239247
Mahaska215746
Jackson209939
Dickinson204140
Tama202865
Kossuth198655
Delaware186140
Clay184425
Winneshiek183228
Fayette179235
Page177919
Buchanan177829
Wright174231
Hamilton173842
Cedar172723
Hardin169839
Harrison167670
Clayton160154
Butler159231
Mills148420
Floyd148141
Poweshiek148030
Cherokee146236
Lyon145541
Allamakee144148
Madison143018
Iowa140323
Hancock138030
Grundy132230
Winnebago130531
Calhoun129411
Cass129251
Jefferson128634
Appanoose123347
Louisa122444
Mitchell120540
Chickasaw119915
Union119131
Sac118718
Shelby117433
Emmet115440
Humboldt113725
Guthrie109628
Franklin109219
Palo Alto101321
Howard99522
Montgomery96936
Clarke95020
Keokuk92529
Monroe89828
Adair81529
Ida81532
Pocahontas80919
Davis76523
Monona76427
Greene73110
Lucas72121
Osceola68315
Worth6678
Unassigned6590
Taylor64112
Decatur5699
Fremont5599
Van Buren53718
Ringgold50620
Audubon4769
Wayne47121
Adams3184
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