COVID-19 numbers surge in Iowa, and a prison inmate in Coralville becomes the first in the state to test positive

The Iowa Medical Classification Center Correctional Facility, 2700 Coral Ridge Ave, Coralville, April 15, 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 389 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, a total that eclipsed the previous one-day record for reported cases of 191 set on Friday. Those new cases bring to the state’s total of confirmed cases to 2,902.

Sunday’s newly reported cases include 65 residents of Linn County and 29 residents of Johnson County.

IDPH also reported the death of a Muscatine County resident from COVID-19. The deceased was between the ages of 61 and 80. According to the department, 75 Iowans have now died from the virus.

On Saturday, the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) reported the first case of a prisoner testing positive for the virus. The prisoner is incarcerated at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, better known as Oakdale Prison. Oakdale was also the site of the first confirmed case in COVID-19 in Iowa’s prison system, when a correctional officer tested positive for the virus on April 10.

According to IDOC, the infected inmate is between the ages of 18 and 40, and is currently in stable condition.

The inmate, who was convicted of a drug-related crime, was a new admission at Oakdale from Henry County and was therefore already in quarantine when diagnosed with virus. Oakdale is holding all new arrivals in quarantine for 14 days so they can be observed for possible symptoms of COVID-19, and the inmate arrived at the prison on Thursday.

Spread of the virus has become a problem in prisons in nationwide. As the Prison Policy Initiative explained, “Prisons and jails are amplifiers of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, because the conditions that can keep diseases from spreading — such as social distancing — are nearly impossible to achieve in correctional facilities.”

A IDOC spokesperson told Little Village last month that Iowa’s state prisons have “robust policy and plans in place related to pandemic viruses.” County jails in both Johnson and Linn are making efforts to reduce the number of people they are holding and taking other precautions in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

Also on Saturday, the Daily Nonpareil reported cases of COVID-19 at another of the state’s 18 meat processing plants. The paper said to county health officials in Douglas County, Nebraska, had confirmed that two Nebraskans who work at the Tyson plant in Council Bluffs have tested positive for the virus.

The Council Bluffs plant is the fourth Tyson plant in Iowa to have workers test positive.

The state is already conducting intensified testing at in Louisa County, where two workers at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction have died of COVID-19, and at the Tyson plant in Black Hawk County, as well as the National Beef processing plant in Tama County. On Friday night, Tyson released a statement saying workers at the processing plant in Dallas County had tested positive for COVID-19, but the company would not say how many workers were affected, claiming that providing that information would somehow violate the privacy of the infected workers.

Elected officials in Black Hawk County have asked Tyson to temporarily close its Waterloo plant, but the company has refused. Tyson has temporarily closed its plant in Columbus Junction for a deep cleaning, and National Beef has done the same at its plant.

According to a press release from the governor’s office, 261 of the 389 cases reported on Sunday were discovered as a result of increased testing at the Tyson plants in Louisa and Black Hawk Counties and at the National Beef plant. Tyson employees account for 84 of the confirmed cases, and National Beef employees account for 177.

At the governor’s press conference on Friday, both Gov. Reynolds and IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter were asked how severe an outbreak of COVID-19 would have to be at a meat processing plant before the state would order that plant to temporarily close.

The closest either came to answering the question was when Reisetter said, “In terms of the threshold as to what it would look like to close a plant down, we haven’t gotten there yet, in terms of feeling like from a state perspective that we need to order that.”

Reisetter also added, “Our perspective and our understanding is that the owners of these facilities, they also want to do everything they can to keep their workforce healthy.”

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, one of the elected officials who signed the letter to Tyson, has a different perspective.

“I think Tyson is focused on production, period,” Thompson told the Des Moines Register. “I don’t think Tyson gives two shits about who is filling one particular spot on the production floor that day. I think they are purely concerned about productivity at that plant.”

Editor’s note: Normally, Little Village includes a breakdown of newly reported cases by county in its stories on the daily total number of cases in Iowa, but IDPH had not updated its website with that information before this story was published.

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