Iowa’s Next Two Outbreaks Are Glaringly Obvious

By Pat Rynard
May 6, 2020

The next two coronavirus hot spots in Iowa are staring right at us, but it’s not clear that the state is moving to do anything about it.

Both Crawford and Wapello counties have seen rapid increases in their confirmed COVID-19 cases in the past week. Both were part of the 77 Iowa counties Gov. Reynolds ordered reopened this past week, even though they now have more cases than several counties that remain closed.

Wapello County, home to Ottumwa in Southeast Iowa, has 125 confirmed cases as of today. One week ago, they had 10.

Crawford County, home to Denison in Western Iowa, is reporting 103 confirmed cases as of today. A week ago, there were 21 cases there.

What do both counties have in common? Meatpacking plants. JBS operates a pork processing plant in Ottumwa that employs about 2,400. Smithfield Foods runs a pork plant in Dension, and Quality Food Producers has a bacon plant there.

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While there are not publicly confirmed outbreaks at any of those facilities, their counties are following the exact same trend in sudden case spikes that occurred in other Iowa counties with meatpacking outbreaks. Louisa County had all of one confirmed case on April 4, one of the lowest in the region, before skyrocketing to 149 ten days later. An outbreak at the local Tyson plant has now driven them to 279 cases, with one of the highest per-capita infection rates in the country.

Both Black Hawk and Woodbury counties were doing comparatively well in mid-April before meatpacking plant outbreaks caused them to now record the second and third-highest case totals in the entire state.

There are widespread rumors throughout Ottumwa that the JBS plant has many workers infected and most restaurants have remained closed as people fear how widespread the virus may be. One worker tested positive in late March. Testing also jumped in Wapello County late last week, which as the local paper noted, could mean that local health officials know there’s a specific location where many people are showing symptoms.

Something else telling: the confirmed cases in Wapello County are mostly in younger adults. 61 of the cases are among those aged 18 to 40; another 48 are aged 41 to 60; just 7 are 61 to 80. There have been no cases for those older than 80. That points to this impacting workers, not retirees or those in nursing homes.

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Another familiar trend for Wapello County is the lack of transparency. As KYOU-TV reported, local and state health officials have reiterated this week that business outbreaks can’t be named unless that business sees a 10% absenteeism rate (which the business would have to report) or 10% of their workers have become infected. For the JBS plant, that would mean over well 200 confirmed cases from their workforce before being named.

A report from the Carroll Times Herald has even more troubling news for Crawford County. Denison Mayor Pam Soseman says that she requested targeted testing for the two meatpacking plants in town, but was turned down by state health officials.

“I have requested drive-through testing, and I’m being told we are not a ‘hot spot,'” Soseman told the Times Herald. “I have asked that we be proactive as opposed to reactive. I guess we will just have to wait and react. This is so sad.”

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Gov. Kim Reynolds has repeatedly said in recent weeks that increased testing capacity through the Test Iowa program, though it has not fully ramped up yet, will help the state get ahead of any new outbreaks and help contain them.

So far in these two counties, however, it seems like the state is moving slowly, giving too much deference to meatpacking plant owners and are making the exact same errors that allowed other counties’ outbreaks to spiral out of control.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 5/6/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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