The 550 workers infected with the coronavirus at the Storm Lake plant in Iowa, which employs about 2,500 people, triggered a surge of cases in Buena Vista County, home of just 20,000 residents. With a total of 700 people who tested positive as of Thursday, the county has the highest concentration of cases in Iowa.
Operators of the plant and state officials came under fire Wednesday after Iowa’s Department Public Health announced that cases of COVID-19 at meat processing plants would only be confirmed in response to media requests — and then, only if more than 10% of workers were infected.
The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement on Wednesday called for the immediate shutdown of all Tyson plants in the state until workers and the public can be protected.
“The outbreak at the Tyson pork packing plant in Storm Lake is proof that President Trump, Governor Reynolds, and Tyson’s strategy to re-open the economy before it is safe has failed,” the group’s president, Tom Mohan, said in a statement. “Iowa CCI members demand the president, the governor, and the CEOs shut the plants down until they can guarantee worker safety and public health.”
Meat processing plants are coronavirus hot spots across the nation, wreaking health havoc in surrounding rural communities, but specific numbers often are unclear because of a lack of reporting requirements and plant cooperation.
By the end of April, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 5,000 workers had tested positive. The nonprofit group Food & Environment Reporting Network said last week that the number had climbed to more than 17,000, with 66 deaths.
Counties with meat processing facilities reportedly have COVID-19 infection rates five times higher on average than elsewhere in rural America.
Despite the risk, President Donald Trump issued an executive order last month demanding all plants remain open. Workers too frightened to put their health on the line risk losing their jobs — and even their unemployment benefits.
Tyson previously closed three other Iowa plants, as well as operations in Nebraska, Indiana and Washington state, to implement worker safeguards.
The company said in a statement Thursday that it would finish pork processing operations “over the next two days” and will conduct “additional deep cleaning and sanitizing of the entire facility ... before resuming operations later next week,” It attributed the problems at Storm Lake in part to “a delay in COVID-19 testing results and ... absences related to quarantine.”
Tyson also promised to be more forthcoming with test results. “The health and safety of our team members, their families and communities is our top priority,” the company said.
Tyson also operates a turkey processing plant in the county.
Smithfield Foods recently resumed operations at its largest pork processing plant, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, near Iowa’s border, after it was closed for nearly a month. JBS reopened a pork processing plant across the Iowa border in Minnesota.
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