Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register Published 9:00 p.m. CT May 7, 2020 | Updated 2:47 p.m. CT May 8, 2020
More than 1,000 workers at the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo have tested positive for the coronavirus, a county public health leader said Thursday — more than double the number Gov. Kim Reynolds had said the day before.
The news came as the Arkansas-based company reopened the plant Thursday after a two-week closure following a spike in COVID-19 cases there.
The 1,031 Tyson employees confirmed to have the coronavirus included workers who were tested at the plant during the shutdown as well as at private health-care providers, Black Hawk County public officials said. The number includes workers who exhibited no symptoms.
Concern about Tyson’s meatpacking plant in Waterloo rose as Black Hawk County saw a spike in COVID-19 cases. (Photo: Dennis Magee/Courier)
Reynolds said Wednesday that 444 workers at Tyson’s Waterloo plant had tested positive. She said they were among a total of 1,653 meatpacking plant workers who tested positive at four plants. The others were Tyson pork processing plants in Columbus Junction and Perry, and an Iowa Premium beef processing plant in Tama.
Joshua Pikora, disease surveillance and investigation manager in Black Hawk County, where the Waterloo plant is located, said the governor’s numbers for Waterloo reflected tests conducted only at the Tyson plant, not at health facilities elsewhere.
The county has recorded 21 deaths tied to COVID-19. Pikora declined to say where those who had died were employed.
Chris Schwartz, a Black Hawk County supervisor, voiced surprise at the number of positive tests.
"It’s really high," he said. "It’s surprising to hear those numbers on the same day they’re reopening the plant."
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Schwartz said he was disappointed that Tyson officials, who were part of the briefing Thursday, didn’t take responsibility for failing to act sooner to add more protections for employees. "It was incredibly shameful," he said.
But Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, one of the officials who pushed Tyson to close the plant as COVID-19 cases spiked, acknowledged Tyson’s "massive work" since then to "stand that plant up as safely as possible."
Steve Stouffer, president of Tyson Fresh Meats, and Tom Hart, the Waterloo plant manager, detailed the added measures the company has taken to ensure worker safety.
Tyson said it will require employees to wear masks or face shields where protective barriers can’t be installed at workstations. In addition to wellness checks before workers start their shifts, Tyson now has an on-site clinic to provide team members with enhanced care, including testing for COVID-19.
Tyson said it’s requiring all returning workers, as well as new hires, to be tested for COVID-19. Employees who have not been tested will be unable to return to work.
Bob Waters, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 431, said local officials helped "solve problems that needed to be solved."
A sign stands in front of the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall, AP)
Waters, who was part of the briefing, added that other meat processors should use the Waterloo plant as a model for employee protections.
Tyson started slaughtering pigs Thursday and planned to resume production at 50% of its normal pace. Hart said the lines would ramp up only as his team is able to accommodate them.
Sheriff Thompson expressed concern that some businesses and parks were reopening. "Malls are supposed to operate at 50%. How on Earth do you monitor that?"
Just as the governor trusts Iowa, Thompson said, "I will trust that people understand the seriousness of what we face in Black Hawk County and recognize that our numbers are not decreasing yet, have not yet hit a plateau," and that the number of deaths is increasing.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8457.