Tyson finally closes Waterloo plant, while Reynolds fields questions about the no-bid contract behind Test Iowa

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during her Wednesday, April 22 COVID-19 press conference. — video still

Gov. Kim Reynolds struck a very optimistic note near the end of her press conference on Wednesday.

“Every day we’re making significant advances in addressing COVID-19 to the point where we’re going to start talking about how we can open things up in this state, based on what we’ve been able to do and based on what we’ve put in place,” she said.

The governor said that as part of her response to a question about whether she had waited too long to do anything about the surge of COVID-19 cases at the Tyson meat processing plant in Waterloo. (She did not directly answer the question.) Earlier in her press conference, Reynolds said the state would begin extensive testing at the plant on Friday.

Reynolds had not imposed any new safety requirements on the plant, which is believed to be linked to most of Black Hawk County’s 379 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the source of infection for a plant worker who died from the virus on Sunday. The governor has said repeatedly she’s spoken with Tyson executives and the plant’s management team and was convinced the company was doing a good job of protecting workers.

After two weeks of repeated calls from local officials in Black Hawk County to temporarily close the Waterloo plant, Tyson Foods finally agreed to do so on Wednesday morning.

“Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production,” Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, said in a statement.

The “worker absenteeism” Stouffer mentioned, was the result of people not coming to work at the plant because they didn’t feel safe, the Courier reported last week.

Another of the state’s meat processing plants, Redwood Farms Meat Processors in Emmet County, announced on Wednesday it was temporarily closing after one employee tested positive for COVID-19.

There have now been cases of COVID-19 reported in eight of the state’s 18 meat processing plants.

The temporary closure of a different sort of manufacturing facility was also announced Wednesday. Whirlpool said it was closing its refrigerator factory in Amana for “a deep cleaning of the facility” after employees tested positive for the virus. The company did not say how many of its worker were infected.

Whirlpool closed the Amana factory for a week in March after at least two workers were diagnosed with COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported 107 more Iowans tested positive for the virus, including 24 residents of Johnson County and 17 residents of Linn County.

IDPH also reported seven more deaths from COVID-19, including one resident of Linn County between the ages of 41 and 60.

Newly reported deaths by county:

• Black Hawk County, 2 older adults (61-80 years)

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

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

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

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

The newly reported deaths bring the state’s total number of COVID-19 casualties to 90.

IDPH also reported an outbreak of COVID-19 at St. Francis Manor, a nursing home in Poweshiek County. Twenty-three people at the facility have tested positive for the virus. It is the 11th outbreak at a long-term care facility in Iowa, according to IDPH.

(IDPH defines an “outbreak” at a long-term care facility as three or more residents testing positive. Residents and staff in other long-term care facilities in the state have also tested positive, but the department will not provide information on those facilities until they meet its definition of an outbreak.)

Reynolds started her press conference by talking about Test Iowa, the new testing initiative involving an online assessment site and pop-up drive-through testing sites, launched on Tuesday. According to the governor, the expanded testing that will be available through Test Iowa — up to 3,000 tests a day, eventually — will be a key element in her plans to reopen Iowa.

The state has hired a Utah-based tech company, Nomi Medical, to replicate the sort of support for a testing program it has provided to the Utah Department of Health since early April, when Test Utah was launched.

At her press conference on Tuesday, Reynolds explained that Nomi and its subcontractors — which are also Utah-based tech companies — will, in addition to providing the state with 540,000 COVID-19 tests, “do the marketing, the website, the outreach, the data.”

The state is paying Nomi $26 million for its services. It was a no-bid contract, and Reynolds didn’t consider any other companies for the testing program, Clark Kaufmann of Iowa Capital Dispatch reported on Wednesday.

In one of her public health emergency proclamations, the governor suspended the state’s requirement to solicit bids before awarding a contract in matters related to COVID-19.

Kaufmann also published a breakdown of the cost estimates included in the Test Iowa contract.

• $6 million for 12 months of technology and assistance related to the website used for assessments.

• $13.5 million for costs associated with testing over a period of six months, including 540,000 test kits.

• $4.9 million for management expenses.

• $300,000 for equipment and hardware related to laboratory testing.

• $1.2 million for “set up” related to technology, training and testing.

The actual testing at the drive-up sites will be conducted by the state, and the tests will be analyzed by the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa.

“Under the contract, Nomi Health is required to either return to the state the confidential information it collects on Iowans or certify in writing that the information has been destroyed,” Kaufmann reported. “However, it also states that while the state will retain ownership of the data collected under the contract, Nomi Health can use that data for ‘internal research and developmental purpose’ and further allows the company to disclose that data in an aggregate format that in no way identifies any individual.”

Reynolds said on Wednesday that more than 80,000 Iowans had taken the assessment at during the first 24 hours after the site went online. As a result, all the testing slots available at Test Iowa’s first drive-through testing session in Des Moines are already filled.

The governor explained what people should do if they are told, based on their online assessment, that they should schedule an appointment with Test Iowa, since there are no testing sessions other than the one in Des Moines currently scheduled (beyond the testing of long-term care facility staff in Tama County that took place on Wednesday).

“We’ll follow up; this is evolving,” Reynolds said. “So, this will be our first go at it. So, we’re going to learn a lot with both of these test sites that we’re implementing today and Saturday. Saturday is the first Test Iowa drive-through site. But we will be following up with them and we will be scheduling them a time. And we will be doing that sooner rather than later.”

Reynolds was also asked how people who don’t have a cell phone or an email address — both of which are required to register at the Test Iowa site — can access the testing program. The governor said those people should either call the state’s number for general COVID-19 information, 211, or her office, 515-281-5211.

During the press conference, Reynolds was asked if IDPH had revised its projection that COVID-19 cases will peak in Iowa by next week, or if she has decided to extend the closures she’s ordered in her emergency proclamations by April 30. She did not answer either part of the question.

“We’re going to continue to base our decisions on based on data [sic], that’s what we’ve done all along,” the governor replied instead.

Editor’s note: Normally, Little Village includes a breakdown of newly reported cases by county in its stories on the daily total number of cases in Iowa, but IDPH had not updated its website with that information before this story was published.

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