Tyson to shut down SL pork plant, BV COVID-19 cases spike to 700+

Friday, May 29, 2020
Work continues at the Storm Lake Test Iowa site.

Buena Vista County saw a drastic leap in confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus this week, in one day’s time going from the ninth-highest rate per capita in the state to the first, with 702 cases to date by Thursday afternoon. State officials confirmed an outbreak at the Storm Lake Tyson pork plant, with more than 20 percent of employees testing positive.

Iowa Department of Public Health deputy director Sarah Reisetter said 555 of the plant’s 2,517 employees have tested positive.

Tyson announced Thursday evening that it would voluntarily close the Storm Lake pork plant temporarily, due in part to a delay in COVID-19 test results and worker absences. “We will idle harvesting animals and finish processing over the next two days. Additional deep cleaning and sanitizing of the entire facility will be conducted before resuming operations later next week,” a company statement said. Employees were receiving text messages indicating departments would be off work from Friday until June 3. The turkey plant will continue to operate.

When operations resume, team members at Tyson’s Storm Lake facility will continue to have access to additional testing, screening and nurse practitioners. Tyson has doubled bonuses for workers during the COVID threat period.

Within 24 hours, the county case total rose from 252 Tuesday afternoon to 674 Wednesday. Eleven new cases were reported Thursday. More than 35 county residents per 1,000 have been confirmed with the virus. The next highest county, Louisa, was at 30 per 1,000.

In the northwest Iowa region, 106 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, 43 in intensive care - including an estimated 10 cases from the local area. Over 3,900 county residents have been tested, with almost 18 percent of those positive. Fifty-eight are considered recovered.

While Buena Vista County rates spiked, the surrounding counties saw only a slow rise. Case counts were 27 in O’Brien, 24 in Cherokee, 17 in Sac, 14 in Ida, 13 in Clay, 10 in Pocahontas, 3 in Palo Alto and 2 in Calhoun. No deaths have been reported in any of those counties.

With the spike, Storm Lake city officials announced Thursday that reopening of facilities including City Hall, the police station, library, park restrooms, shelters, playgrounds and sports fields will be set back to June 16.

Beyond the Numbers

“We’ve been expecting this, just because of the increased testing,” Buena Vista County Public Health Coordinator Pam Bogue said of the local spike, “We knew it was coming, but were hoping not to see that many all at once.”

The numbers seem to reflect a combination of test reporting and increased community spread, she said. Test results are coming in from the Storm Lake Test Iowa site, a Tyson private testing mobile unit, and recent testing in three county nursing homes.

“The testing has done what we wanted it to,” Bogue said.

Results are identifying a number of asymptomatic cases, especially from Tyson, she noted. According to the state’s figures, about 11 percent of confirmed cases so far show no symptoms. While those people avoid suffering dangerous symptoms, “the bad side is that they can be spreading the illness without knowing it,” Bogue said.

While many of the cases in this week’s spike come from Tyson because the company is reporting the confirmed cases in “chunks” at a time, the spread encompasses the entire county, the public health leader said. “All of those positives are not just Tyson, they are spread across all the industries, everybody’s got some.” She said Public Health is working directly with Rembrandt Enterprises as well as Tyson. Companies are not required to release case numbers in their plants. Bogue said Tyson pork plant was tested first, with the turkey employees being tested this week.

Tyson spokesperson Liz Croston said the company has conducted large-scale COVID-19 testing at both Storm Lake plants. She says they will disclose verified test results once complete data is available, with health and government officials, team members, and other stakeholders.

“It also goes way beyond just the workplaces. What we are seeing now is entire families testing positive - six people living in the same house, especially if they are all adults, may all be positive,” Bogue said.

Impact on Health Providers

The public health leader expects the case total for the county to continue to rise. “There will continue to be bunches of test results coming in for a while,” she said.

Currently, the local Test Iowa mobile site is scheduled to close down on the 29th. Bogue said she has heard rumors of an extension. “The governor likes to announce those things herself,” she said.

Bogue said that the Buena Vista Regional Medical Center has transferred some COVID-19 cases to larger regional facilities including hospitals in Sioux City and Fort Dodge. “It’s not that they can’t handle it, but bigger facilities may have more ICU beds and ventilators,” she said. “A lot of them leaving us are going to intensive care units,” Bogue told county supervisors this week.

While hospitalizations have increased, Buena Vista Regional Medical Center officials said in a statement this week that the facility has been prepared for the pandemic for months. “We are still in very good shape from a PPE supply standpoint and have ample capacity to care for both COVID-19 patients and those with other health needs,” the statement reads. The facility has not released numbers of COVID patients.

The case increase is overwhelming for Public Health. Initially the department did investigations on every confirmed case. When the total hit 75, exactly two weeks before the spike, they could no longer manage that task. “We just don’t have the manpower. When we had one day with 19 or 20 new cases, we realized that it was just too much,” Bogue said.

The department is still compiling names and addressed of positive cases to share with the county communications center, so public safety officers responding to calls can be aware of whether there is an active case at an address. Public Health is still following up from some of its original investigations from weeks ago, where symptoms have lingered in individuals.

Advice: continue quarantine

Bogue said that people should continue to stay home, and only go out when it is essential.

“In my personal opinion, we need to close down as much as we can to try to limit the disease transmission. Every single county around us hardly has any cases, and here we do have it. Until the numbers go down, we need to be very careful. They don’t have to be zero, but they should be trending down before we open up any of the places where people tend to congregate, like playgrounds,” Bogue said.

“Governor Reynolds may open the whole state up more in the near future the way it sounds, but BV County is a different situation than most of the state. We need to react like the eastern part of the state did when their numbers were so high - they are seeing the decreases now after their precautions.”

The impact on small business continues. Sugar Bowl Gift Shop in Storm Lake, which recently reopened, shut their doors again. “The health and safety of our employees and customers is a top priority,” owners said in a social media announcement. Other businesses extended or reinstated restrictions after seeing the spike in local cases.

“I know it’s hard for people to stay in the house day after day,” Bogue says. “You can go outside and walk, or kids can go outside and play. Get some air and exercise, but try to avoid social contact as much as you can - clearly we are passing this around from person to person.”

Iowa fails to meet the World Health Organization’s latest guidelines for reopening businesses and other facilities, according to Johns Hopkins University.

States should have positive test rates of under 5% for two weeks before reopening, based on new World Health Organization recommendations, the university said on its national COVID-19 tracking site. On Tuesday, that figure was 12.5% in Iowa. State records show the rate of positive cases has not been below 5% since mid-March. 

Iowa reopening continues

This week, Governor Kim Reynolds extended the existing COVID-19 proclamation through June 25, even as additional openings take place.

May 28, bars and breweries, and social and fraternal clubs were allowed to reopen, with restrictions. Live bands will be allowed with social distancing on and off stages. Restaurants and bars can host parties of up to 10 people.

June 1, racetracks can reopen to spectators, and outdoor music and grandstand events can be held. Casinos, amusement parks, bowling alleys and arcades can reopen. Sports gatherings of more than 10 can begin, but social distancing of spectators must be maintained. Youth and adult baseball, softball, tennis, swimming and golf resume. With the state restrictions eased on gatherings of 10 or more as of the start of the month, extended families can gather. (Storm Lake has not lifted its mandate on gatherings). Other businesses not yet addressed will remain closed until June 17.

The moratorium on foreclosures and evictions phased out Wednesday, but federal CARES Act funds will be used for relief of eviction and foreclosures of mortgages and rent from documented COVID-19 losses, according to the governor.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) announced Wednesday that the state has received nearly $1 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer free counseling to any Iowan who has been affected, in any way, by the COVID-19 public health emergency. The program, called COVID Recovery Iowa, is available now. Counseling will take place via virtual sessions, chat or phone call. People of all ages may join groups online to find support and learn new strategies to cope with the effects of the pandemic in a variety of creative ways.

“We are so grateful to our federal partners for providing Iowa with this critical funding,” said Director Kelly Garcia. “It’s not uncommon to experience feelings of stress or anxiety during uncertain times. This funding will help us support Iowans across the state who are trying to find their new normal.”

Iowans can access services through the following options:

• Call 800-447-1985 to connect with a counselor specializing in rural issues and agriculture 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

• Call the Iowa Warm Line, 844-775-9276, to connect with a peer counselor or request to get in touch with a COVID Recovery Iowa counselor.

• Visit www.COVIDrecoveryiowa.org and complete a contact form and a counselor will get back to you.

Too much, or too little?

Stay-at-home and mask-wearing mandates have been a polarizing issue in Iowa and across the nation. As the state gradually reopens, a College Finance poll released Thursday sought to gauge how the public feels about social distancing efforts and the response of public officials to combat COVID-19. Findings include:

• While only 2% of people haven’t practiced social distancing recently, nearly 7 in 10 believe they’re practicing social distancing more than others.

• Over half of Democrats feel people aren’t worried enough about COVID-19; nearly 4 in 10 Republicans feel people are too worried

• 72% of Democrats believe public officials haven’t done enough to handle the crisis, more than half of whom report deteriorating mental health since the outbreak

• Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe that public officials have done too much in response to the crisis

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: