Pork plants and prisons are the new front line in Iowa’s COVID-19 fight

Department of Correction Director Beth Skinner speaks while Gov. Kim Reynolds holds up a face covering made by prison labor during the April 20 COVID-19 update. — video still

As outbreaks at Iowa’s meat processing plants continued to drive a surge in COVID-19 cases, and workers’ complain not enough is being done to protect them from the virus, Gov. Kim Reynolds said it is essential that those plants remain open.

“This isn’t like a regular facility, where you shut it down for two weeks,” Reynolds said during her press conference on Monday. “We have farmers who are raising hogs, we are the largest hog producer in the country. We provide a third of the nation’s pork supply, about 25 million a year. [sic] And so, if we aren’t able to move them through the process, at some point we’re going to have to be talking about euthanizing hogs. And we’re not that far from.”

“It would be devastating, not only for the food supply, but for the cost of food going forward.”

Cases of COVID-19 have now been reported at a third of the state’s 18 meat processing plants. The cases at the sixth plant were reported shortly after the governor’s press conference concluded.

According to WOI-TV, 16 workers at the Prestage Foods of Iowa processing plant in Wright County have tested positive for the virus. All of those workers were asymptomatic when they tested positive, according Wright County public health officials.

The state has sent 950 tests to Wright County, and intensive testing at the plant began Monday morning, WOI reported.

The Iowa Department of Public Health does not consider a business as experiencing an outbreak until 10 percent of its workforce has tested positive for COVID-19. So far, IDPH has only declared outbreaks at the Tyson processing plant in Louisa County and the National Beef plant in Tama County. Cases of COVID-19 have also been reported at Tyson plants in Black Hawk County, Dallas County and Pottawatomie County.

On Thursday, Black Hawk County Public Health said 150 cases of COVID-19 were directly attributable to the Tyson plant. A group of 20 elected officials in Black Hawk County has sent a letter to Tyson, asking the company to temporarily shut down its Waterloo plant to protect both the plant’s workers and the county’s residents.

Reynolds was asked about the Waterloo plant on Monday. She said the state is sending an additional 1,500 tests to three clinics in Waterloo, but said, as she has at previous press conferences, that Tyson is already doing a good job of protecting its workers.

“We’re working with all of the Tyson plants,” Reynolds said. “I’ve been on the phone with the CEO and the management team for all Tyson plants to talk about what they’re doing proactively to make sure that they’re protecting their workforce.”

At her press conference on Friday, Reynolds was asked if she’d spoken to any groups representing the workers at the processing plants. She has not.

“I’ve really focused on the HR or the plant managers, so that we can understand what the needs are,” the governor said.

On Monday, Reynolds was asked, if the plants were doing a good job protecting workers, and have been doing so since COVID-19 began spreading in Iowa, “how is it possible, then, that you have so many getting sick?”

“They’re mass gatherings,” she said. “When you think about these facilities, there’s a lot of people that are co-located. So, it’s all about infectious control practices and really working with the facilities to make sure that there doing everything they can.”

The governor then shifted responsibility for preventing the spread of the virus onto the processing plant workers.

“But it’s also about making sure that the workforce knows that you need to practice social distancing; if somebody in your household is sick, that you’re staying home; that you’re covering your cough; that you’re mitigating the efforts even in your household as much as you can.”

The governor has so far only ordered businesses that deal directly with the general public to close in her series of public health emergency proclamations. At her Monday press conference, Reynolds was asked if she planned to issue any executive orders regarding manufacturing facilities not involved in the food-supply-chain to close, since their workers are also often in close contact with each other.

“No, I didn’t,” the governor began, before stopping and restarting her replied. “You know, we need manufacturing up and going.”

On Monday, IDPH reported another 257 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including 18 residents of Johnson County and 14 residents of Linn County. The newly reported cases bring the state’s total to 3,159.

Newly reported cases of COVID-19 by county

• Allamakee: 4

• Black Hawk: 67

• Bremer: 2

• Buchanan: 3

• Clinton: 1

• Dallas: 7

• Des Moines: 2

• Dubuque: 2

• Grundy: 1

• Hardin: 1

• Harrison: 1

• Iowa: 1

• Jackson: 1

• Jasper: 6

• Jefferson: 2

• Johnson: 18

• Jones: 1

• Linn: 14

• Louisa: 3

• Marion: 1

• Marshall: 18

• Monona: 1

• Muscatine: 11

• Polk: 54

• Poweshiek: 3

• Scott: 12

• Shelby: 2

• Story: 2

• Tama: 10

• Warren: 2

• Washington: 3

• Webster: 1

• Woodbury: 7

IDPH also reported on Monday that four more Iowans have died from the virus, including two residents of Linn County.

Newly reported COVID-19 deaths by county

• Black Hawk County, 1 middle-age adult (41-60 years)

• Linn County, 1 middle-age adult (41-60 years), 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Mahaska County, 1 middle-age adult (41-60 years)

According to IDPH, 79 Iowans have now died from COVID-19.

Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) Director Beth Skinner also spoke at the governor’s press conference on Monday. Skinner said a second employee at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, better known as Oakdale Prison, has tested positive for the virus.

IDOC announced on April 10 that a corrections officer at the prison had tested positive, and on Saturday the department reported the first known case of an Iowa prison inmate with COVID-19.

Skinner said IDOC was following long-standing plans regarding infectious diseases to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The actions the department has taken so far are listed on its website.

The director said IDOC is also making efforts to reduce its inmate population.

“About a month ago, we were 22 percent above capacity,” Skinner said. “Today, our prison count is 8,372. This is the lowest it has been since June 30, 2017.”

Even at that almost three-year low, the state’s prison system is still at 20.7 percent above capacity, although Skinner did not mention that statistic.

“We are working closely with the Board of Parole, which has the authority to release those who would likely succeed in a community setting,” Skinner explained.

Most of those released will be supervised by IDOC’s community-based corrections (CBC) program, which supervises a range of people convicted of crimes, including those on probation, parole and work release.

According to Skinner, 10 people under supervision in CBC have tested positive for COVID-19, as have four staff members.

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