CORONAVIRUS

Deaths from coronavirus in Iowa hit 500

Outbreak at another meatpacking plant confirmed

Gov. Kim Reynolds arrives to update the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Thursday a
Gov. Kim Reynolds arrives to update the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Thursday at the state emergency operations center in Johnston. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

JOHNSTON — As state officials confirmed Thursday that hundreds of workers have become infected in yet another outbreak at a meatpacking plant, Iowa marked two other grim milestones: 500 people have died from the virus that now has been confirmed in every county.

“We are still in substantial spread throughout the state of Iowa. We have been since March 8,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said during her daily briefing on the state’s pandemic response. “We are going to have to learn to live with and manage COVID-19 until or if a vaccine is discovered.”

Iowa’s first positive cases of the disease were reported March 8 in Johnson County. As of Thursday morning, with 260 new cases, that had grown to 18,522.

Iowa’s first death from the disease was reported March 24 in Dubuque County. With 13 deaths reported in the latest 24-hour period ending Thursday morning, the total stood at 500.

The Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed an outbreak at the Tyson pork processing plant in Storm Lake, saying 555 of the plant’s 2,500-plus employees — over 20 percent of its workforce — tested positive for the virus.

At least seven meatpacking plants across Iowa have had state-confirmed virus outbreaks, infecting thousands and causing several deaths.

The state Public Health Department’s policy is to confirm outbreaks at businesses only when asked about them by the media.

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After state officials confirmed the latest outbreak Thursday, Reynolds and state Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig used time at the half-hour briefing to highlight the issues those outbreaks have created at Iowa farms — which now have more hogs than are needed at the processing plants — and to detail the financial and policy assistance they say those farmers have received and still need.

Naig said temporary shutdowns and reduced operations at processing plants have created a backlog of pigs that were raised to be processed.

Iowa farms currently have over 600,000 excess hogs, according to an Iowa State University analysis, and are fast running out of room.

Naig said while processing capacity was improving slowly, it remained reduced. He said overall processing across the state currently was operating at about 80 percent of capacity.

A new program introduced Thursday by the state ag department will provide financial assistance to farmers who have excess hogs that are creating an animal welfare issue.

“Euthanasia is always the last resort. I’ll repeat that: euthanasia is always the last resort,” Naig said. “A pork producer’s goal is to raise healthy animals to feed others. It’s what they do. So euthanasia goes against everything that they do every day and everything that they stand for, and it creates a tremendous amount of emotional stress for those producers.”

The state crossed the 500-death threshold with five new deaths reported in Polk County, two in Marshall County and one reported in each of Black Hawk, Dubuque, Johnson, Louisa, Muscatine and Scott counties.

While daily new deaths continue on an upward trend, statewide hospitalizations and recent admissions continued to trend downward.

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And with a positive case confirmed in Decatur County in south central Iowa, the virus has now been confirmed in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.

John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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