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Nearly 1,400 Tyson workers at 3 Iowa plants get coronavirus

May 5, 2020 GMT
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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Olivia Sun/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)
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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference on COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Olivia Sun/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Nearly 1,400 workers at three Tyson Foods pork processing plants in Iowa have tested positive for the coronavirus, the state reported Tuesday, as deaths surged to a new daily high and a testing backlog persisted.

The Iowa Department of Public Health revealed for the first time that the state’s largest workplace outbreak has been at the Tyson plant in Perry in central Iowa. There, 730 workers were confirmed to have the virus, a startling 58 percent of those tested, the department said.

The Tyson plant in Waterloo has had 444 workers test positive, and its Columbus Junction plant has had 221 confirmed infections, the department said.

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The department said that 258 workers at a National Beef plant in Tama tested positive, as did another 131 employees of a Newton wind turbine blade plant owned by TPI Composites.

The department’s deputy director, Sarah Reisetter, said the state medical director was using her legal authority to release the locations and scope of those five workplace outbreaks after determining the information was in the public interest. The department defines an outbreak as workplaces in which 10 percent of employees are sick or absent.

The department didn’t immediately release the number of workers who died at the plants, but The Associated Press has confirmed at least six.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she would fly this week to Washington D.C. using campaign funds to update President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence about “what we’re doing in Iowa” and thank them for the federal help.

Reynolds said she would discuss “how testing, case investigation and our assessment are working” and how “we’ve tried to be proactive” responding to outbreaks at plants.

At a briefing Tuesday, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx noted a big increase of cases in the Des Moines area even as the situation improved in the New York City area.

“Even though Des Moines has only gone from a thousand cases to two thousand cases, that’s a very illustrious point to us and we work very closely then with the state, the governor and FEMA to get on top of that,” Birx said.

Tyson, the other employers and public health officials had generally declined requests to release figures showing how many of their workers were infected. The silence was particularly striking in Perry, a town of 7,500 with a large Latino population.

Tyson had closed its Perry plant for one day last month for cleaning. But the company has not suspended production there as it did for two weeks in Columbus Junction in April.

The Waterloo plant has been idled since April 22 but is expected to reopen soon. At least three workers have died there.

Black Hawk County sheriff Tony Thompson, who had criticized Tyson’s safety practices as inadequate last month, praised the company Monday for outlining significant new measures when the Waterloo plant reopens.

Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said that it would not hesitate to “idle any plant for deep cleaning and sanitation when the need arises” and was implementing a host of safeguards. She said all employees returning to work and new hires will be tested and the company is providing face coverings that must be worn, among other steps.

TPI Composites said Saturday that it is working on plans to safely resume operations at its wind turbine plant, which had been paused since late last month. At least one of its workers, 54-year-old Kyle Brown, has died.

Iowa reported Tuesday that 19 more residents have died from the coronavirus, a one-day high, and that its confirmed cases now exceed the 10,000 mark.

Meanwhile, the State Hygienic Laboratory in Coralville said that it hoped to clear a backlog of coronavirus tests by Tuesday afternoon. The lab was “using all the means at its disposal” to test specimens, it said.

The backlog came as Iowa opened mobile sites under its TestIowa program and the laboratory works to validate testing equipment purchased from a Utah contractor.

Among those still awaiting results Tuesday was Maiga Van Haalen, 40, a dental hygienist from Pleasantville who got tested when the first site opened April 25. She said she has had to interact with people at grocery stores during her wait and is frustrated not to know the outcome.