Iowa governor vows steps to prevent outbreaks at food plants


DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday that she’s asking federal agencies and business leaders for help preventing coronavirus outbreaks at Iowa food processing plants and responding to two where scores of workers are already infected.

Reynolds said that she was calling the leaders of 18 major meatpacking and food plants to assess how the pandemic is affecting their workplaces and how the state can help.

She said she also has a call scheduled with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and is inquiring with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control “to see if they can provide some assistance at our packing plants as well.”


Reynolds said she wanted to help the plants identify sickened employees quickly “before it starts to become significant and really problematic for the facility to keep up and running.” She noted that the plants represent a critical part of the nation’s food supply.

“We’re doing all of the above to make sure that we can continue to protect all of our employees but also make sure that we can protect this critical essential infrastructure as well,” Reynolds said at a news conference.

Reynolds said state agencies were in “constant contact” with the plants and helping to ensure they are implementing promised worker safety protections.

Economists at Iowa State University projected Wednesday that the pandemic will have a “massive” impact on the state’s large agriculture industry, causing billions of dollars in losses. Hardest hit could be ethanol and hog farming as fuel demand drops, packing plants close and restaurants lose business, they warned.

Iowa reported that an additional 96 residents had tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, for a total of 1,995 since the first case was reported. The state confirmed a seventh outbreak at a long-term care facility, a retirement home in Wilton.

An additional four reported deaths increased Iowa’s death toll to 53, and current hospitalizations ticked up to 171.

The state’s largest hospital, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, implemented new rules barring visitors for adult patients with very limited exceptions. Children, including two being treated for COVID-19, can have one visitor per day.

Hospital Chief Medical Officer Theresa Brennan said imposing the restrictions was a difficult but necessary call to protect workers and patients. She said the hospital was already hearing from smaller regional hospitals that were almost full and may soon need help treating patients.

The governor said the state is sending enough materials to test 900 more people this week at a Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction, which has suspended operations for two weeks after more than 160 workers tested positive. The additional testing is intended to understand the scope of the outbreak as Tyson works to reopen the plant as early as next week.

A second plant, the Iowa Premium beef plant in Tama, suspended production this week after several of its roughly 850 workers tested positive.

Infections at food manufacturing plants have contributed to the racial and ethnic disparities among Iowa residents testing positive for COVID-19, said Department of Public Health deputy director Sarah Reisetter. The plants employ a large number of Latinos and immigrants.

Hispanics and Latinos account for 17.4% of Iowa’s confirmed cases compared with about 6.2% of the state population. Blacks are more than 9% of those infected compared with 4% of the population.

Reisetter cited underlying health conditions and housing density as contributing to those rates.

“We also know we have larger numbers of these populations that work in businesses that have not been ordered to close,” she said.