How Louisa County Residents Are Grappling With COVID-19 Outbreak

Photo: the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction

A volunteer emergency medical technician debates when it’s necessary to use personal protective equipment and when it’s not so he can conserve the supply.

A grandmother rarely leaves her apartment for fear of contracting the virus and spreading it to her family.

A city councilman, who has lived through disasters in Louisa County before, knows the resiliency of his community.

“The community will pull through it, they always do,” said 51-year-old Frank Best, referencing the flood of 2008 that put the Southeast Iowa county on national news, much as it is today.

“They pull together and we get done what needs to get done,” he said.

Unlike flooding, which is a fact of life for river towns in this corner of the state, the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime.

The county of roughly 11,000 people went from zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the beginning of April to 166 on Wednesday. According to Louisa County Public Health, 148 of the county’s positive cases are associated with the outbreak at Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction.

This week, Louisa County surpassed New York state, home to the country’s largest outbreak, in positive cases per capita. New York has an infection rate of 1,031 per 100,000 residents compared to Louisa County’s rate of 1,328 per 100,000, according to data collected by the New York Times.

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On April 6, Tyson said it would shut down the Columbus Junction pork plant for a week “due to more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 involving team members at the facility.” The plant is still closed.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, a Tyson employee said workers there are not allowed to speak to the media.

“No doubt it’s scary, it’s fearful,” said Kathy Moore, 59, of Wapello. “My biggest concern with me is I’ve got 10 grandkids and I don’t want to carry it to them. I don’t want to be the one to be around somebody who’s three aisles over in the grocery store and they start coughing and I don’t realize it and carry it to my kids.”

Moore lost her job last year at the local envelope manufacturer and has been sidelined since with medical setbacks and shoulder surgery. While stuck at home, she talks regularly with her family and friends, at least one of whom works at Tyson and contracted COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.

“I don’t think she really felt unsafe because she was taking precautions, making sure she had a mask and things like that on,” Moore said.

The list of those infected at Tyson ranges from plant executives and nurses to workers on the “kill floor” and others, according to local residents.

In an effort to ramp up testing, on Tuesday, Community Health Centers of Southeastern Iowa said it will begin drive-up testing in Columbus City this week for individuals who meet certain criteria.

Louisa County does not have a hospital, but is sandwiched in-between Des Moines, Muscatine and Johnson counties, all of which have larger hospital systems.

As of Tuesday morning, the latest available data put Iowa at 1,995 positive cases and 53 deaths. Linn County, in Eastern Iowa, remains the most hard-hit with 276 cases and 21 deaths. Louisa County has the fourth-highest number of positive cases, but no deaths.

According to the new Iowa Department of Public Health data center, 290 people in Louisa County have been tested for COVID-19, of which 57% have tested positive.

At Wednesday’s daily press conference, Gov. Kim Reynolds said 900 tests were headed to the Tyson plant.

“I’ll admit it, I’m scared,” said David Wagner, a 35-year-old medical coder from Grandview. “I got three kids and a wife. My wife’s got some medical issues. It’s a scary ordeal.”

Wagner, the volunteer EMT, said he carries a face mask and PPE when responding to calls in the county.

“But, of course, our resources are limited so we try to save what we can for what we know is a COVID case or a possible COVID case,” he said, “but you never really know who has what. There’s so many asymptomatic people.”

Starting Line spoke with Moore shortly after Reynolds’ press conference Tuesday, a feed she has watched as often as possible.

“I think we even got as high as a nine on the scale,” Moore said, referring to the 12-point scale state officials are using to evaluate the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks in different regions of Iowa.

The state has said scoring a 10 on the scale could prompt officials to issue a “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order there.

“Everybody around here figured, OK, if we’re topping New York (in per-capita cases), we’ve got to be a 10 by now,” Moore said.

In fact, Region 5, of which Louisa County is apart, has dropped to an eight because the percentage of Iowans hospitalized in the region with COVID-19 has decreased, in large part due to the increase in testing.

“A lot of people around here felt that the governor should have put a stay-at-home order,” Moore said.

Wagner said there “definitely” should be a stay-at-home order.

“A lot of people that I do know around here do think there should probably be a stay-at-home order,” he said. “But I also feel like everyone kind of knows we need to be staying home anyways? So I really don’t know exactly what it would do, if it would make it better, but I feel like we should probably have it anyways … I went to Walmart on Saturday and I saw people still walking around with their kids shopping.”

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Best, the Columbus Junction councilman, said he was “really torn on that decision.”

“I see when I see our county get to this spot why we definitely need it,” Best said. “But then I drive out to go anyplace — like I’m on my way to work, not necessarily even in this county — and I see people filling up Walmarts or filling up stores, and it’s tough. I understand people still need to get out, they need to get things, and quite honestly, half of them aren’t going to listen to you anyway.”

Even with a stay-at-home order, hundreds of Tyson employees still would have arrived daily at the plant due to their essential work in food production.

On Tuesday, Reynolds said “the plant was putting in a lot of measures to protect the employees.”

“They are doing screening, they are providing masks, they’re providing face shields,” she said. “They are being very up front: if you are sick, stay home. And so they have been, I think, very proactive in making sure that when they stand the plant back up they are doing everything that they can to not only protect the employees but to continue a really critical piece of our food supply chain.”

The relative of one plant worker, however, disputed that, telling Starting Line the company did not provide face masks to workers, still had people working in close proximity to each other, allowed workers to eat together in the break room, and that workers weren’t told of the infections until the day the plant shut down. Not wanting to disclose their name, they also noted the only changes made at the plant were taking employees’ temperatures as they came in, encouraging people to wash their hands, and displaying posters with information about the virus in multiple languages.

Having worked at the Tyson plant “all through college,” Best is familiar with the conditions there.

“You work shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow on the line,” he said. “So if one person is asymptomatic and they’re a carrier, it doesn’t take long that you’re close to everybody in that sort of situation.”

 

By Elizabeth Meyer, with reporting from Claudia Thrane
Posted 4/15/20

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