Iowa Food Plant Has Hundreds More COVID-19 Cases Than Health Dept. Reported

Novel coronavirus cases in Iowa have surpassed 40,200, including hundreds at a pork processing plant, where over 500 employees have been infected. The figure is 301 more than the number reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) back in May, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

At a news conference on May 5, the department revealed 221 workers at the Tyson Foods plant in the city of Columbus Junction had tested positive for the virus.

But days earlier, officials at Tyson Foods told Iowa workplace safety regulators that there were nearly 530 employees infected, according to documents obtained by AP through the open records law.

The inspection report from the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said: "There were 522 positive COVID-19 cases to the best of the company's knowledge," AP reported.

Tyson Foods officials told the Iowa OSHA that dozens of its nearly 1,300 workers were believed to have been hospitalized at the time and two workers died after being infected.

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the IDPH, Amy McCoy, noted the department releases the name of an employer where there has been an outbreak (when 10 percent of the workforce has been infected) "in a single location of an employment setting which constitutes a high-risk environment for the potential of COVID-transmission."

She added: "There have not been any additional outbreaks that have met the outbreak definition since the last shared on June 2, 2020.

"We confirmed the outbreak based on the first phase of testing and when we could confirm there were more than 10 percent of the employees infected at one time in the congregate setting.

"We announced the outbreak as it reached that threshold in an effort to alert and protect the public. We have tried to improve this process to share more timely information," McCoy told Newsweek.

During the May news conference, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds confirmed the IDPH had been compiling data from surveillance testing to monitor an outbreak.

The Tyson Foods plants in Columbus Junction, Perry and Waterloo as well as two other workplaces were confirmed to have outbreaks, the IDPH's deputy director, Sarah Reisetter, said at the May news briefing.

Reisetter noted at the briefing that the 221 cases reflected 26 percent of those tested, which would be 850 total tests. She also announced the Waterloo plant had 444 infections, but days later county officials confirmed there were more than 1,000 positive cases, AP reported.

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, Gary Mickelson, said: "Coordinating facility-wide testing and obtaining results is a complex process that takes time. It appears the number of cases shared by the state reflected the first phase of testing at the plant. Additional tests found more positive cases.

"Today, we're not aware of any active COVID cases involving team members employed at the Columbus Junction plant. The safety and health of our team members remains our top priority," Mickelson added.

Officials at Tyson Foods were reported to have known about the first case at the Columbus Junction plant on April 1. Four days later the plant was closed after 29 employees tested positive, according to the Iowa OSHA report.

The governor was reported to have sent 1,100 testing kits to the county for testing during the plant's two-week shutdown. The plant reopened on April 20 with new safety guidelines in place, AP reported.

The Iowa OSHA launched an inquiry at the plant following media reports that two workers had died after being infected. The administration inspected the plant on April 30 and met with several company officials at the time.

According to the inspection report, a manager at the Tyson Foods plant told inspectors that communication between the company and public health officials was "not efficient," noting that information about infections at the plant wasn't available for days after testing.

Newsweek has contacted the office of Gov. Reynolds for comment.

Tyson Foods factory Arkansas
Employees at a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Springdale, Arkansas. Getty Images

The latest incident follows the exit of former IDPH spokesperson, Polly Carver-Kimm, who resigned from her position last week, allegedly because she attempted to reveal too much information about the outbreak to media outlets. She allegedly received the ultimatum of leaving her position voluntarily or being fired by the IDPH.

Carver-Kimm said most media requests about the virus had been redirected to the office of Reynolds. "I have never had something like that happen before in any of the administrations I've worked for," she said.

Over 15.2 million people across the globe have been infected since the virus was first reported in Wuhan, China. More than 8.6 million globally have reportedly recovered from infection, while over 624,100 have died, as of Thursday, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the U.S. states with the most COVID-19 cases.

covid-19 states statista

The graphics below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

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The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. states and the European Union.

New COVID-19 cases in U.S. vs EU
Average number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and the European Union. STATISTA