Iowa Department of Public Health understated extent of COVID-19 outbreak at Columbus Junction Tyson plant

Workers process pork in a meat processing plant, May 2016. — United States Government Accountability Office

On May 5, almost a month after an outbreak of COVID-19 forced the Tyson meat processing plant in Columbus Junction to temporarily close, the Iowa Department of Public Health finally announced how many workers at the plant had tested positive. But according to a new report from the Associated Press, the number IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter provided during that day drastically understated the extent of problem.

At Gov. Kim Reynolds’ press conference on May 5 — during which the governor announced Iowa was now in “the recovery phase of COVID-19” — Reisetter said 221 workers at the Columbus Junction plant 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,” the AP’s Ryan J. Foley reported on Wednesday.

“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.”

IDPH spokesperson Amy McCoy told Foley the number Reisetter used on May 5 was what IDPH “could verify from our data systems.”

As Foley noted, the department never updated its report of the number of cases at the Columbus Junction plant.

As a matter of policy, IDPH will only inform the public of cases of COVID-19 at a business if those cases meet the department’s very restrictive definition of an outbreak. It’s only an outbreak if 10 percent of the entire workforce at a single business location, where social distancing is limited, test positive for the virus, or if 10 percent of the workforce is unavailable to work due to illness. And on May 26, Reisetter acknowledged that it was also IDPH policy to acknowledge an outbreak only if a reporter asks about it.

The department does not publish information about business outbreaks on its COVID-19 information page.

According to the documents obtained by Foley, Tyson officials became aware of the first case of COVID-19 at the Columbus Junction plant on April 1. Five days later, Tyson temporarily closed the plant for extensive cleaning, saying in a public statement that more than two dozen workers had tested positive.

“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,” Foley wrote.

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

Despite the rapid spread of the virus at the plant and the two deaths, Iowa OSHA decided that Tyson “was trying to follow the best CDC guidance at the given time” and did not issue any citations or take any other actions to force the company to improve conditions for workers.