At least eight meatpacking plants in Iowa have many confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, putting the state No. 1 in its rate of meat industry-related infections, according to a new analysis.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) dove into data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and found, as of May 6, Iowa had 1,784 meatpacking workers infected by the novel coronavirus, the highest number in the country. Nebraska also has confirmed eight outbreaks at meatpacking plants with 1,263 workers testing positive for COVID-19.
EWG’s investigation, published Thursday, found “counties with or near meatpacking plants have almost twice the rate of known COVID-19 infections as the national average.”
Its analysis found counties that have a meatpacking plant, or are within 15 miles of one or more, reported 373 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents compared to the national average of 199 cases per 100,000.
“EWG’s analysis dramatically quantifies a fact attested to by news reports from across the nation: Meatpacking plants, along with prisons and senior living facilities, are the hottest hot spots for COVID-19 infections,” the report states.
That has proven true in Iowa, where a majority of COVID-19 infections and deaths have occurred in meatpacking plants and long-term care facilities.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said today 57% of Iowa’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred among residents of long-term care facilities. EWG’s analysis show 18% of the state’s positive cases come from meatpacking employees.
As the Trump Administration instructs meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic, Democrats have insisted workers be equipped with adequate personal protective equipment in order to perform their duties safely.
“As Iowans we have to take care of each other — the people that are working at our processing facilities, growing our food, working at our hospitals and care centers are all essential,” said Patty Judge, chair of Focus on Rural America. “These are our friends and neighbors and it is terribly wrong to not do everything humanly possible to protect their lives.”
EWG’s analysis cites eight Iowa meatpacking plants with known cases of COVID-19 as of May 6: Tyson, Columbus Junction; West Liberty Foods, West Liberty; National Beef Packing Co., Tama; JBS, Marshalltown; Tyson, Waterloo; Tyson, Perry; Prestage Foods, Eagle Grove; and Redwood Farms Meat Processors, Estherville. Earlier this week, IDPH announced that there was an additional outbreak at Upper Iowa Beef in Lime Springs.
On May 7, the Iowa Department of Public Health started publicly naming the meatpacking plants that have confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks, though there have been discrepancies in infection rates reported by the state versus county health departments.
As of May 7, based on the 10% infection rate Iowa uses to classify outbreaks at manufacturing and food production facilities, the state listed only four meatpacking plants in the “outbreak” category.
EWG’s analysis points out the 9,364 cases of COVID-19 among meatpacking plant employees across the country “is undoubtedly a significant undercount” because some states, counties and health departments “refuse to release information about which specific facilities have cases.”
For example, late in April, the Sioux City Journal broke the news 669 employees at Tyson Fresh Meats in Nebraska City, Nebraska, had tested positive for COVID-19, despite Gov. Pete Rickett’s insistence against telling the public how many meatpacking employees in the state were infected.
An interactive map allows users to click on the site of a meatpacking plant to learn how many infections were reported there between March 23 and May 6 and the number of infections that have occurred within a 15-mile radius of the facility.
Tyson Foods in Columbus Junction has reported more than 200 cases of COVID-19 among employees. Within a 15- mile radius of Louisa County, 1,408 cases across six counties were reported between March 23 and May 6. West Liberty Foods, 23 miles north of the Tyson plant, identified about 70 cases at the turkey processing plant (which has since risen to 136) and 1,396 cases within a 15-mile radius of Muscatine County.
JBS in Marshalltown reported 34 cases at its plant between March 23 and May 6, but for counties within a 15-mile radius of Marshall County, 1,262 cases of COVID-19 were reported. National Beef Packing Co. in Tama only is 23 miles from JBS. More than 250 cases were reported at the Tama beef plant, with 1,292 cases within a 15-mile radius of Tama County.
“Most of the plants on EWG’s map are found in clusters, at least in part because of the increasing consolidation of the meat and poultry industry,” the report states. “The map shows that because the 15-mile radius around meatpacking plants often crosses county or state lines, seemingly isolated case clusters not only endanger one community but can also spread the virus to neighboring counties or states.”
That analysis has proven especially true with the Smithfield Foods outbreak in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where 800 cases were reported between March 23 and May 6. Between the five counties in South Dakota and Iowa that fall within a 15-mile radius of the pork processing plant, 2,409 cases were reported.
Dakota City, Nebraska, also borders Iowa. More than 600 cases were confirmed at the Tyson plant there. In the seven counties within Dakota County’s radius, 2,386 COVID-19 infections were reported.
By Elizabeth Meyer
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.