CORONAVIRUS

Iowa meat plants struggle to turn coronavirus 'hot spots' into safe spots

Social distancing problematic in shoulder-to-shoulder job

The Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Two employees have died a
The Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Two employees have died after a coronavirus outbreak at the pork processing plant. The plant has been shut down since April 6. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — As the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout Iowa, public health officials are urging Iowans to observe social distancing by remaining at least 6 feet apart.

But at food processing plants in the state, workers continue to do their jobs while standing fewer than 6 inches apart.

A delicate balancing act is taking place at these plants: Experts say the facilities must remain open to preserve the food supply chain, But because of the nature of the work, it can be complicated to adequately protect workers during a pandemic and remain profitable.

Outbreaks of the virus have occurred recently at three Iowa food processing plants: at Tyson Foods plants in Waterloo and Columbus Junction, and at a National Beef Packing Co. plant in Tama. A fourth outbreak occurred at a Smithfield Foods plant just across Iowa’s northwest border in Sioux Falls.

Two workers have died and more than 100 tested positive for the coronavirus as a result of the outbreak at the Columbus Junction plant.

Numerous workers at the Tama plant contracted the virus, company officials said.

And more than 600 cases of the virus were confirmed at the Sioux Falls plant.

Three of the plants have closed temporarily, but the Waterloo facility remained open Saturday despite widespread calls from local officials that it be idled for cleaning.

State and company officials have not published precise numbers of the Waterloo outbreak, but local health officials told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier they have witnessed a surge in coronavirus cases there.

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State officials and plant leaders say they are taking steps to protect workers at these food plants. State officials are sending thousands of test kits to the Iowa plants so the companies may more accurately determine the outbreaks’ scope.

Company officials say they are working to get their employees safety equipment like face masks and shields, and are placing physical barriers between workers where possible.

But there is a limit to how successful any prevention and mitigation efforts to protect workers at food processing plants can be, experts say.

“We have witnessed the difficulty of social distancing in Tyson,” Black Hawk County health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye told the Courier. “It’s a problem that I truly believe is very difficult for food production facilities.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which provides oversight to ensure workers’ safety, did not respond to multiple messages seeking information on whether it has received complaints about the Iowa facilities or has sent inspectors to the facilities since the outbreaks occurred.

Iowa elected officials have stressed a need to do what is necessary to protect workers and also get the closed plants reopened and operating.

Asked if she has spoken with groups that represent workers at Iowa’s food processing plants, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she focused her communication on managers.

“I have really focused on (communicating with) the plant managers so that we can understand what the needs are, so we can first of all make sure that the employees are safe and that they’re working in a safe environment,” the Republican governor said. “And testing is a critical component of that, so we can start to understand what the scope of the exposure has been and through contact tracing how we can get in front of that and hopefully protect the employees and ultimately keep the plants up and going so that we can keep the flow of food going out of Iowa and throughout the nation.

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“They are critical infrastructure and it’s essential that we do everything we can to protect the workforce while keeping these processing plants up and going.”

During a teletown hall with Iowa farmers, Republicans U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Iowa agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said more testing and inspections are needed at packing plants to help strike a balance between productive plants and protected workers.

“State of Iowa is absolutely committed to working with packers to keep these plants moving while being absolutely protective of the workforce,” Naig said.

But striking that balance may not be possible, said Patty Judge, a former Democratic Iowa agriculture secretary and lieutenant governor. She said the production lines at packing plants move rapidly, which requires workers to stand essentially shoulder-to-shoulder.

“It may not be possible to keep those plants open. But if they are operating, they need to be taking all precautions,” Judge said during a news conference. “It’s a big problem. I don’t have any smooth answers. But the first thing that we have to do is make sure that we are protecting human life.”

Judge said plants may need to slow those production lines in order to allow workers to stand farther apart. During the same news conference, Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic Iowa governor and federal agriculture secretary, said it is incumbent upon food processing plant leaders to get creative by slowing down production lines or redesigning the manner in which workers handle the product.

“As is always the case in a crisis situation, it’s going to be necessary for people to be incredibly creative. And I think the folks who run and operate those plants need to be thinking, is there a way in which they can create products that is necessary for us to continue to have an adequate food supply and at the same time provide safety for workers,” Vilsack said. “If they make the determination that workers can’t be safe, then I think they obviously are going to have to shut the plant down.”

In a paper that was published April 10 — just before the first outbreak at a plant in Iowa, at the Columbus Junction facility — Melissa O’Rourke, a farm and agribusiness management specialist at Iowa State University, listed steps agricultural businesses could take to protect their workers.

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In her paper, O’Rourke issued a warning: “Start planning now so that you have some level of preparation.”

O’Rourke wrote that agribusiness can protect workers by having workers practice social distancing, constantly wash their hands and sanitize work areas, use protective equipment like masks, shields and gloves and stay home when feeling sick.

But in those food processing plants, it’s the social distancing that is particularly challenging.

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