Iowa cities with meatpacking plants struggle to get information on COVID-19 cases as state allows businesses to reopen


Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register (IA)

May 18, 2020


It's been three weeks since Denison Mayor Pam Soseman asked two meatpacking plants in the town of 8,400 to seek state testing of their employees.


The state finally set up a Test Iowa location a week ago, where those who qualify can get tested for the coronavirus. Still, Soseman doesn't know how many employees have the virus, though she's heard one plant is struggling with absenteeism.


"I'm unsure if it's illness-related or if it's fear," she said.


Soseman said she's concerned about other businesses reopening in town at a time when meatpacking plants, with their tight-packed production lines, have been major sources of infection, and Crawford County's case count is growing. "Many in our area feel it is a little premature" since the city remains a "hot spot," she said.


Across Iowa, communities with meatpacking plants are struggling to get information from companies and public health officials about COVID-19 outbreaks. Officials say the lack of transparency makes it difficult for cities and towns to assess the virus's threat as Gov. Kim Reynolds allows other businesses to reopen across the state.


Counties with meatpacking plants in them or nearby lead the state in positive cases per capita: Louisa, Crawford, Woodbury, Tama, Marshall, Muscatine, Black Hawk, Wapello and Dallas.


"The public is just getting tidbits — and sometimes misleading information" from the state that could give it a false sense of confidence about a community's health, said Iowa Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat whose district includes Waterloo in Black Hawk County.


On May 7, the county's Public Health Department released information showing that a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo had more than twice the number of workers testing positive for COVID-19 than Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Health announced two days earlier. "She could be putting our state in a dangerous situation," Smith said.


The state public health department says it will report an outbreak at meatpacking plants and other processors and manufacturers when 10% of the workforce has tested positive for the coronavirus.


That's too late, said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Communities, workers and their families need earlier warning so they can adjust their interactions "when it is easier to bring the disease under control."


So far, the state has released details about five meatpacking plants and one wind turbine blade manufacturer, with about 20% to 60% of their workforces testing positive.


Workers at Pine Ridge Farms, a Smithfield Foods plant in Des Moines, say the company tested all its workers Thursday for the virus. But neither the Iowa Public Health Department nor Smithfield would comment directly on the tests or what they showed.


The state released a general statement, saying it doesn't disclose information about companies that have requested testing assistance. And Smithfield has declined to  release testing information, saying it's protecting workers' privacy.


Matt McCoy, a Polk County supervisor, said he's concerned the state is shielding meatpacking plants from releasing test results in an effort to keep workers on the line...