By Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds told a national television audience on Wednesday that Iowa had met the challenge of providing a “safe environment” for meatpacking-plant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reynolds made her remarks on FOX News with conservative commentator Sean Hannity presiding over a gathering of Republican governors who were there to discuss how their agendas are helping America.
At one point in the program, Hannity turned to Reynolds and raised the issue of her response to the pandemic in relation to Iowa’s meatpacking industry.
“I watched how you handled that and it was spectacular, to be very honest,” Hannity said. “Because you guys went right in, it was like full-court press, and surrounded the area. Tell us about it.”
“Well, first of all, my farmers and producers produce over 10 percent of the nation’s food supply,” Reynolds responded, “so it was imperative that we kept our food-processing plants open, and we kept our grocery stores full and meat on the table for families all across this country. And so we were able to go in and do surveillance testing. We were able to access a certain number, a large number, of tests so that we could not only keep the processing plants open but we could ensure the employees that they were working in a safe environment.
“Not only did we provide the PPE, but we were able to test, those that were positive were quarantined, and we were able to keep our processing plants up and going and, I mean, not back up hog production for our producers and we were looking at some horrific numbers because the processing plants were being impacted from COVID. And so we hit it head on. We made testing available. We were able to implement a really robust data program that really allowed us to, right down to a Zip code, identify where the positive cases were and act accordingly.”
Reynolds’ claim that Iowa kept “the processing plants open,” ignores a number of closures reported by the plants themselves. Her statement that the state ensured “a safe environment” for employees has been disputed by local officials, workers’ families and media reports.
At the Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, at least 1,500 of the 2,800 workers were infected with COVID-19, according to the Black Hawk County sheriff, Tony Thompson, who also heads the county’s emergency management commission. At least eight plant workers died. In fact, the plant temporarily shut down production in April 2020 due to an insufficient number of healthy workers, and that decision came only after local officials made repeated, public calls for a shut-down.
“We should’ve never had the amount of exponential growth in positive cases and the amount of deaths that we had early on,” Thompson told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “We should’ve never had any of that, and it’s all due to Tyson.”
Early in the pandemic, on April 15, 2020, State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regional COVID-19 response team about the rapidly growing number of infections in Iowa’s meatpacking plants.
A CDC official wrote back and asked whether Pedati was requesting federal assistance, which would include help with contact tracing, data entry, employee screening, foreign language barriers and other issues. Pedati declined the offer, writing, “We are still working on gathering a little more information from our partners, and so are not quite yet ready to make a request.”
By that time, hundreds of workers at the Waterloo plant were refusing, or unable, to report to work, alleging the company was covering up a COVID-19 outbreak and encouraging symptomatic workers to remain on the job. Days later, in the wake of one at least confirmed death, local officials called on Tyson to temporarily close the plant. Within 48 hours, a second plant worker died, and Reynolds reiterated her position that she would not be ordering Tyson to close the plant.
The Black Hawk County Health Department then broke with the state, declaring an official outbreak at the Waterloo plant, contradicting the Iowa Department of Public Health’s claim that there was no “official” outbreak there.
On April 22, 2020, with more 180 workers sidelined by the virus, Tyson voluntarily closed the plant, temporarily, citing an insufficient number of healthy employees. Over the next few days, two more employees of the plant would die, according to court records. By the time the Waterloo plant reopened in early May, more than 1,000 of its workers had tested positive.
On May 7, 2020, the Black Hawk County Public Health Department indicated the Waterloo plant had sustained twice the number of infections that IDPH had reported 48 hours earlier. By the end of that month, Tyson had temporarily closed its Storm Lake plant, citing 555 infections among the plant’s 2,400 workers.
In June, Tyson officials said more than 500 workers at the company’s Columbus Junction plant had been infected. In Tama, a single outbreak at the Iowa Premium Beef plant left nearly 40% of the plant’s 850 workers infected, which resulted in the suspension of production at the plant.
In Sioux City, more than 100 employees at Seaboard Triumph Foods had contracted the virus within the first three months of the pandemic, and workers there complained about the lack of PPE and other safety measures.
In July, the Associated Press reported state records showed the number of infections at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction was significantly larger than what the Reynolds administration had reported, with 522 of the 1,300 plant employees infected. The state had previously said 221 plant employees had tested positive for the virus.
In September, AP reported that an April 2020 outbreak at the Iowa Premium Beef Plant in Tama had resulted in 338 of the plant’s 850 workers testing positive for the virus — which was 80 more infections than the state had previously acknowledged.
In November, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that a wrongful death lawsuit against Tyson alleged that Waterloo plant managers had organized a betting pool to wager on how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19, and had explicitly directed supervisors to ignore workers’ symptoms. Tyson eventually fired seven plant managers after conducting its own investigation into the allegations.