From Tyson plant outbreaks to ‘economic recovery’ plans, Reynolds and her COVID-19 team are collaborating with industry higher-ups, not workers

Tyson Fresh Meats meat processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. — Google Street View

Iowa set another one-day record for the number of reported COVID-19 cases on Friday, as outbreaks at meat processing plants helped drive the total number of new cases to 191.

On Thursday, Gov. Reynolds said the state was sending an additional 1,500 additional test kits to Louisa County, where the Tyson pork processing plant in Columbus Junction has a severe outbreak. This outbreak directly led to almost 200 cases of COVID-19 and the deaths of two plant employees from the virus. Reynolds also said the state was sending 1,500 tests to Black Hawk County because of an outbreak at the Tyson Plant in Waterloo.

At her press conference on Friday, the governor announced the state is sending an additional 2,700 test kits to Black Hawk County.

Workers at the Waterloo plant had been complaining for weeks the company was not doing enough to keep them safe and many had stopped coming to work, the Courier reported on Thursday.

IDPH reported on Friday that Black Hawk County has 138 cases of COVID-19, but on Thursday, county officials said the number is 150 and the outbreak at the plant is responsible for the county’s high case count. (There is a time-lag of 24 hours in IDPH’s reporting of positive tests.)

At her press conference, Reynolds said the Iowa Department of Public Health was working closely “with some of our processing plants,” in particular the Tyson plants in Columbus Junction and Waterloo, “in an effort to test all employees and conduct contact tracing for all positive cases.”

“I have had the opportunity to speak with the Tyson plant in Waterloo,” Reynolds said. “I was able to do that last evening about the steps that they’re taking to protect the help of their employees.”

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, who toured the Tyson plant last week, has a different view.

“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.”

At her press conference on Friday, Reynolds was asked, “Have you also talked with groups representing the workers [at the plants]?”

Reynolds replied that she had spoken to Commissioner Rod Roberts of the Iowa Division of Labor, although later she said it was her “team” who had spoken to Roberts. Reynolds said Roberts is working to make sure processing plants and other businesses are aware of IDPH and CDC guidelines.

Asked again if she had spoken to groups representing workers, Reynolds replied, “I’ve really focused on the HR or the plant managers, so that we can understand what the needs are.”

Reynolds was asked if there was a level of infection at a processing plant that cause the state to shut the plant down.

“Our goal is to hope that we don’t” have to shut down a plant, Reynolds said, and that’s why she had ordered the increased testing at the plants.

Reynolds then turned the question over to IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

“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 said.

Reisetter said the plants had been acting as good partners to the state in COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“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,” Reisetter said.

In Black Hawk County, Sheriff Thompson said, “My personal opinion is that it should be closed. I think we need a hard boot, reset on that plant. I think we need to be able to sort out and cull the herd between the haves and the have nots there. I think we need to deep-clean that facility and I think we need to restart that plant on a clean slate.”

Of course, it isn’t just meat processing plant workers that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in large numbers. University of Iowa Health Care administrators estimate more than 60 UIHC staff have tested positive for the virus, the Gazette reported on Friday.

UI Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekeran told the paper he was not aware of any worker becoming infected after dealing with a COVID-19 patient, and didn’t know where the 64 employees believed to infected had contracted the virus.

“It’s been so prevalent in different parts of the community that we’re just unclear,” Gunasekeran said.

Among the 191 new cases of COVID-19 IDPH reported on Friday were 12 Johnson County residents and 24 residents of Linn County. The newly reported cases bring the states total to 2,332, according to IDPH.

• Allamakee: 1

• Benton: 1

• Black Hawk: 29

• Bremer: 13

• Dallas: 2

• Des Moines: 1

• Dubuque: 1

• Fayette: 1

• Grundy: 1

• Henry: 4

• Jasper: 5

• Johnson: 12

• Jones: 1

• Linn: 24

• Louisa: 3

• Marshall: 26

• Muscatine: 15

• Plymouth: 1

• Polk: 21

• Pottawattamie: 3

• Scott: 9

• Shelby: 2

• Story: 1

• Tama: 7

• Washington: 3

• Woodbury: 3

• County unknown: 1

IDPH also reported another four deaths in Iowa.

• Black Hawk County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)

• Scott County, 1 older adult (61-80) years)

• Tama County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Washington County, 1 older adult (61-80) years)

According IDPH, 64 Iowans have now died from the virus.

At her press conference, Reynolds was asked about the bipartisan group of Midwestern governors — representing Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky — who announced on Thursday they have agreed to coordinate their responses to COVID-19.

“We recognize that our economies are all reliant on each other, and we must work together to safely reopen them so hardworking people can get back to work and businesses can get back on their feet,” the governors said in a joint statement.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzer told reporters on Thursday, “Iowa chose not to be part of this. I know they don’t have a stay-at-home rule yet in place. They’ve made a lot of different decisions than we have.”

Reynolds didn’t directly respond to a question about why she’d chosen not to join the multi-state group.

“We have been in constant contact with all of the governors across the country, whether it’s been on the conference call with the vice president and the president, or just various times, pick up the phone and see what they’re doing in their states,” she said. “We kind of had already established a group of governors that we worked very closely with the flood-mitigation that we are working with the levee system along the western side of the state.”

According to Reynolds, that group includes the governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas. Reynolds said she believed that members of the group had also reached out to the governor of Kansas.

North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas and Iowa are the only five states in the country that do not have either partial or statewide shelter-in-place orders. All the governors currently in this group are Republicans.

“That’s kind of a unit that we’ve been working with to start to talk about how we reopen as a region,” the governor said.

Reynolds has said she intended to make all decisions regarding the reopening of Iowa businesses and the loosening of social restriction on her own.

At her press conference, Reynolds said she has started having meetings with the state’s chief economist and the heads of various agencies regarding “how we will stabilize, recover and grow Iowa’s economy.”

“As we move into the next phase of planning, we will be assembling a group that includes business and industry stakeholders to help provide input on challenges, but also opportunities ahead and really help develop solutions to fuel the economic recovery and growth,” she said.

That group apparently will not include representatives from unions or other workers groups.

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