Outbreak at meat processing plant drives biggest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases; Reynolds says there’s no need for new regulations on plant safety

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during her April 14 COVID-19 update. — video still

An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Tyson pork processing plant in Columbus Junction pushed the number of new confirmed cases of the virus to 189 on Tuesday, a new one-day record. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, a total of 1,899 Iowans have tested positive for the virus since March 8.

IDPH also reported another six deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total number of fatalities to 49.

At her press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said 86 of the newly reported cases were related to the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Tyson pork plant. The governor said another 100 confirmed cases reported last week were also related to the Tyson outbreak.

The state has done extensive testing for the virus among Tyson workers, the governor said. IDPH has also sent extra testing supplies to Tama County, where an outbreak occurred at the National Beef processing plant. Reynolds did not say how many cases are related to the National Beef outbreak, but according to IDPH data, 216 residents of Tama County have been tested for the virus, resulting in 108 positives.

Reynolds was asked at the press conference if the state needed to increase safety monitoring or issue new regulations for meat processing plants, given the outbreaks at Tyson and National Beef.

Reynolds said nothing needed to be done, because she believes meat processing companies will behave responsibly.

“Actually, when I reached out to the CEOs of both the plants, they had indicated they’d already taken the [needed] steps,” Reynolds said. “So they are trying to be very proactive to not only protect their workforce, but to make sure they can continue a really critical piece of our food supply chain.”

Iowa is not the only state experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants. On Sunday, Smithfield Foods announced it was temporarily closing its pork processing plant in Sioux Fall, South Dakota, after 293 of the plant’s employees tested positive for the virus.

South Dakota, like Iowa, is one of the five states that hasn’t issued either a partial or statewide shelter-in-place order.

At her press conference, Reynolds was asked if she would follow the example of some other states, and make decisions about reopening closed businesses and easing public restrictions in conjunction with neighboring governors. The Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington has all agreed to coordinate their easing of restrictions, as have seven East Coast states.

“It makes a lot of sense to look at from a regional perspective,” the governor said, explaining she is in regular contact with the governors of bordering states.

But that doesn’t change Reynolds’ opinion that she should make decisions for Iowa on her own. She said “every governor is going to have to take a look at what is happening in their state and make those decisions based on what they’re seeing in their respective states.”

The governor was also asked if there are plans to extend the closures she’s ordered through the first two weeks of May, since IDPH is predicting the first peak of COVID-19 cases in the state to occur at the end of April.

“I’m not going to make any projections right now,” Reynolds replied. “We’re hoping that we can start that process [of reopening closed businesses in the state] in May, but I’ll have to see where we’re at at the end of the month. But we are working on what that looks like, what metrics we can use to start to dial back up some of the businesses, and we will keep you apprised of that as we move through the next couple of weeks.”

Normally, Little Village includes the list of new COVID-19 cases by county in its stories on the governor’s press conference, but neither the IDPH nor the governor’s office published that list on Tuesday.

At 8:45 p.m., the governor’s office did send out a press release that provided the counties of residence and the age ranges of the Iowans whose deaths were reported on Tuesday.

• Polk County, 1 adult (18-40)

• Pottawattamie County, 1 older adult (61-80)

• Linn County, 1 older adult (61-80), 1 middle-age adult (41-60)

• Scott County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Tama County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

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