More Than a Third of Workers at a Tyson Hog Processing Facility in Iowa Have Contracted COVID-19

More than 1,000 workers at a pork processing plant in Iowa that reopened following a two-week closure due to the spread of COVID-19 have tested positive for the disease.

The number of infected workers at the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, which had opened its doors on Thursday for the first time since April 22, is more than twice the number that had been cited earlier in the week, and is a sizeable proportion of its workforce of 2,800.

According to health officials in Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, there were 1,031 reported cases of the disease, more than double than the 444 positive cases the Iowa Department of Public Health reported earlier this week.

The discrepancy in the numbers was because state figures comprised of only those who had been tested on-site, while the higher number includes workers who may have not had any symptoms and who had been tested through other healthcare providers.

Tyson Foods
The exterior of a Tyson Fresh Meats plant is seen on May 1, 2020 in Wallula, Washington in this illustrative image. Over a third of workers at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa, have tested positive for the coronavirus. David Ryder/Getty Images

"It's high. It's really high." Chris Schwartz, a Black Hawk County supervisor, told the Des Moines Register, also criticizing Tyson for what he says was a delay in providing protections for workers as "shameful."

"It's surprising to hear those numbers on the same day they're reopening the plant," Schwartz said. Newsweek has contacted Tyson Foods for comment.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) did however praise new safety measures, saying the plant, which reopened at 50 percent capacity, should be used as a model for employee protections for other meat processors, the Register reported.

Workers will get health checks, COVID-19 testing and will be required to wear masks or face shields if protective barriers cannot be set up at workstations. "They really impressed me with the changes they made in the plant," UFCW's local branch president Bob Waters said.

Nearly a quarter of pork production has gone offline since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, after Tyson and other companies like Smithfield Foods, suspended operations at plants due to sick workers.

As states start to reopen, and with concerns about repairing the upended national food supply chain, the conditions at the facilities remain under heavy scrutiny despite measures taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among essential workers.

Pat McGonegle, the CEO of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said that the reopening of plants cannot be done in "a way that risks the health or safety of the food worker."

"The processing companies are doing everything they can to make it more safe for the workers. I think we now have to balance reopening with keeping workers safe," he told Newsweek. "I think each company, each plant, will have to figure out what works for them. I hope that the closed plants will soon be able to open up and we can move forward."

The infographic below, provided by Statista, shows the U.S. states with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases, as of May 8.

COVID-19 U.S. Statista chart
Statista chart, U.S. states with most COVID-19 cases. Statista