Linn County confronts the ‘crisis within a crisis’ of worker safety, as the spread of COVID-19 at processing plants in other counties impacts its residents

Linn County Public Health’s Clinical Services Supervisor Heather Meador gave an update on the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Linn County during a press conference on Monday, April 20. — video still

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart began Monday’s Linn County Public Health press conference by urging residents to wear a cloth face mask whenever they go out “in public, if you’re outside your home, you’re outside your car or when social distancing is difficult to ensure.”

“Cloth masks that cover your nose and your mouth should always be worn when you’re going out in public, especially grocery stores, home improvement stores, pharmacies or any other retail location that’s open,” Hart said. “I’m really asking everyone to commit not to go out to these public places without a mask.”

As of 1 p.m. on Monday, Linn County has 456 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 29 deaths. A total of 177 residents have recovered. (The Iowa Department of Public Health was only reporting 411 cases and 25 deaths among Linn County residents on Monday, but the IDPH’s reporting has a one-day time-lag.)

Linn County Public Health’s Clinical Services Supervisor Heather Meador said of the 148 cases reported over the weekend, 59 percent — or about 87 cases — are linked to the outbreaks at meat processing plants in other counties. Among the counties where outbreaks have been reported are Tama, Louisa and Black Hawk.

“These increases are a reminder of how easily this virus is transmitted and that we continue to have community spread of this virus,” Meador said.

“We have many residents within Linn County that do work at the meatpacking plants that are outside of our county. It does have a large impact on our county but also on surrounding counties. These are large employers that do employ individuals from numerous areas.”

During a LCPH press conference last Thursday, April 16, Supervisor Stacey Walker raised concerns about the “crisis within a crisis” — keeping workers safe during the pandemic.

“We refer to many of these workers as essential, which I wholeheartedly agree that they are, but we must be careful not to treat them as if they are expendable,” Walker said. “Many of these individuals working in these plants and large manufacturing facilities across the state are immigrants, refugees or belong to racial or ethnic minority groups. This fact alone does not make their lives more valuable than any others, but it underscores a reality we are seeing across the nation — minority groups are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus for a host of reasons.”

COVID-19 Press Conference, April 20th, 2020 3:30PM

Now streamed live on Facebook, YouTube…/UCV9JaHlZ0phu… and local news sites.

Posted by Linn County Public Health on Monday, April 20, 2020

Black and Latino Iowans are testing positive for COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. Information about the race and ethnicity of Iowans testing positive for the virus is available online but only on a state-wide level.

On Monday, Meador said that LCPH has started looking at the data for Linn County.

“Once we have that more solidified, we can look at releasing that data, but yes, we are looking at that data because we know that there are populations that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Meador said. “We do want to be looking at that information, so we can look at how we can best serve those communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

Meador also said that LCPH is investigating the potential spread of COVID-19 at two “congregate living settings” where testing and contact tracing is currently being conducted. LCPH is not releasing the names of those places at this time and the information provided at the press conference was limited.

“We are investigating group homes that may have an outbreak at this point in time, but until we have concluded our investigation to know exactly what we’re going to present, we’re not going to present any additional information,” Meador said.

When asked about why the facilities are not being named, Meador answered, “At this point, we don’t know what’s occurring at those facilities, and until we actually declare it an outbreak, we would not be naming that facility as that would put undue stress on that facility as they’re trying to take care of their staff and their residents. Once we have determined that there is an outbreak, then we can work with the facility for naming them, but at this point this is an ongoing investigation.”

Prior to Monday’s press conference, it was announced that a deputy sheriff assigned to the Linn County Correctional Center has tested positive for COVID-19. Through contact tracing, LCPH identified 11 employees were exposed but determined that no inmates were exposed.

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