CORONAVIRUS

Schools near meatpacking plants raise COVID-19 concerns

They lack extra guidance although risk of virus is greater

Prestage Foods of Iowa, shown Aug. 25, employs a number of Fort Dodge residents. In April, 25 employees tested positive
Prestage Foods of Iowa, shown Aug. 25, employs a number of Fort Dodge residents. In April, 25 employees tested positive for COVID-19. (Danielle Gehr / IowaWatch)
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A meatpacking plant is one of the most dangerous places to work. The risk of injury is high and illness can spread quickly on the crowded killing floors.

Iowa counties with the highest rates of COVID-19 are home to large meatpacking plants. Iowa saw several outbreaks at plants in the spring — including workers who died of the disease.

Already at risk for outbreaks at work, families here face sending their children back to classrooms where rates of transmission among students and teachers aren’t fully understood.

There are no plans from health officials to address an outbreak at a school with ties to a meatpacking plant; the current direction is that counties work with the local department of health to determine appropriate steps, a review by IowaWatch found.

The Iowa Department of Public Health did not respond to multiple requests for information.

Recent studies released by the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show transmission and infection rates among kids is higher than originally anticipated. Serious illness that can result from a COVID-19 infection have impacted relatively few children in the United States, but studies are ongoing.

The 2020-2021 school year now underway in some districts will be unlike any other. For families of meatpacking employees. the risks could not be higher.

Kristy Nabhan-Warren, a University of Iowa researcher and author of “Meat America: The Work of Faith in the Heartland,” has spent the last eight years researching meatpacking in Iowa — observing the inner workings of plants.

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The work? The rates of injury and illness on killing floors are higher than for all of private industry and all manufacturing.

The plants run on migrant and refugee power. African and Central American workers make up much of the workforce — an already at-risk population. Iowa’s immigrant population has jumped in the last decade, relocating to communities near processing plants for work. Add COVID-19 and the prospect of sending their children back to school — the situation may become untenable for some of them.

Dr. Megan Srinivas, infectious diseases specialist with a master’s degree in public health, said meatpacking plants present a challenge to fighting any pandemic including COVID-19.

“Plants represent a mixing pot,” she said. “COVID-19 doesn’t recognize county lines, and carpooling across counties is commonplace for these workers.”

Across the country, packing plant workers are more likely to live in multigenerational households. It is the same for Iowa workers. This presents an even more precarious situation for these Iowa families: Children at school where transmission levels are unknown and workers at plants that historically can be illness vectors come home potentially bringing COVID19 with them to their older, higher risk family members.

Nabhan-Warren said this has been an even more difficult time for these families to speak out if they see potential missteps at a meatpacking plant for fear they could lose their jobs.

One example is relative newcomer Prestage Foods, which draws workers from several communities. IowaWatch looked at school and health preparations in Eagle Grove, Fort Dodge and Waterloo.

North Carolina-based Prestage built a $300 million plant to rural Wright County and the small town of Eagle Grove in 2018. It brought in Chicago architects and consulted with Temple Grandin, an expert on livestock handling and barn design. The plant sits on 160 acres of Iowa farmland. With over 5 miles of conveyor belting, over 900 employees process more than 10,000 hogs a day from the 100,000-square-foot kill floor to the 20,000 square feet freezer.

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Families and workers declined to speak with IowaWatch for this story. Prestage declined to be interviewed when asked how it is protecting employees during the time of COVID-19 and as children of workers head back to school.

Deborah Johnson, communications director of Prestage, wrote in an email, “I appreciate your interest in involving us in this particular story you’re working on, but we decline the opportunity for an interview at the present time.”

In April, Prestage reported its first cases of COVID-19. According to the company, 25 workers tested positive. Employees from across the region were infected. Wright County reported one and Webster County — home to Fort Dodge — reported one. But the highest number came from Black Hawk County with a reported 18 infections from the Prestage plant. The other cases were from Humboldt and Hamilton counties.

The Eagle Grove School District, 869 students, is a little over 20 miles from Fort Dodge with about 3,000 residents. The Prestage plant is on the outskirts of the rural town; about a 10 minute drive from Eagle Grove High School. While about half the workforce comes from Fort Dodge, a large percentage comes from Eagle Grove.

On Aug. 10, the Eagle Grove School Board held an informational meeting where each member wore a face shield or mask. So far, there were 13 students who are opting to learn online. The high school is using previously unused spaces to expand lunchrooms. Face masks will be required and teachers must be able to move from one learning option to another if there is an outbreak. Teachers are hypervigilant about cleaning between classes. Students, they said, are just as vigilant about cleaning their personal spaces as the custodians and teachers.

Kids in the elementary school will spend time early on getting used to their personal protective gear, learning how to wear face masks properly. Classes will be small. But it will be as normal as possible. At recess and lunch and phys ed, the kids will get to take off their masks and face shields and run around just like kids.

Fort Dodge has a population of about 24,000 and is the seat of Webster County. The Fort Dodge school district of 3,838 students already is facing scheduling and planning challenges.

Webster County reported one of the highest infection rates in the state since the coronavirus was first reported in Iowa. But a glitch reported Aug. 20 in Iowa’s COVID-19 tracking system forced counties to reevaluate positivity rates, the metric schools use to determine when and how to head back to class. As a result, the county went from a 24 percent infection rate to only 2.3 percent overnight.

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Because the county exceeded the 15 percent rate of infection mark set by the state, which is already far higher than the CDC’s recommendation, he board pushed the school year back until after Labor Day. Then 48 hours later when the miscalculation was reported and the infection rate seemingly plummeted, the school went back to its original start date of Aug. 25.

Jennifer Lane, director of communications for the district, said schools there are encouraging rather than mandating mask use and told IowaWatch via email that the Fort Dodge School District is following CDC guidelines.

But CDC guidance has been modified over the last month and new information came out Aug. 21. In the updated guidance, the CDC provided a stratification of risk to help school decisions.

Online learning presents the safest way for schools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among students and keep teachers and staff healthy. However, as schools move into hybrid learning models or full time face-to-face teaching to address quality of education and socialization concerns, the risk goes up significantly.

According to the CDC, the minimal strategies being implemented by Fort Dodge schools is considered the higher to highest risk strata.

Children will not be allowed at school if they test positive for COVID-19, and Superintendent Jesse Ulrich said children were expected to complete the isolation and quarantine period before returning. Schools would do the best they could to inform families of a student being positive, with guidance from the local Webster County Department of Health.

The same holds for teachers — they must comply with state and local public health rules on isolation and quarantine before returning to work. However, since teachers are deemed essential workers, they are expected to work even if they have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic.

During an informational meeting, Ulrich said that “if you (teachers) feel uncomfortable with that, I suggest you consider becoming a substitute teacher or recruit a substitute teacher.”

She didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

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Webster County Supervisor Niki Conrad fields calls from concerned parents and community members almost daily about COVID-19, infection rates and where the state gets its numbers from.

“I’ve been tracking daily COVID-19 numbers for Webster County on the state website. When I noticed that we dropped from 893 to 684 confirmed cases between Aug. 19 and Aug. 20, that raised a flag, especially since Webster County Public Health confirmed 912 cumulative cases on the 19th.” Conrad told IowaWatch, “I’ve reached out to the IDPH, but so far, haven’t received a response as to why.”

Over 100 miles away from Prestage, a straight shot east on U.S. Highway 20, is Black Hawk County, home to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area and other Prestage workers.

This isn’t unique. Nabhan-Warren said. “People travel long distances in Iowa to work at the plants” and many share the commute in vans — very close quarters, she noted.

The Black Hawk County Board of Health held a special meeting Aug. 21 where members voted unanimously to recommend a mask mandate throughout the county, despite Reynolds’ assertion that there isn’t local control for mandating masks.

Waterloo Public Schools has one of the most diverse student bodies in Iowa. The district has already decided it will mandate masks in its hybrid learning plan.

Unlike Fort Dodge, Waterloo — a city of nearly 68,000 with 11,000 students in the district — will have students alternate days to allow for better social distancing, scheduled hand-washing, enhanced screening of students and staff and changes to the ventilation system to increase the flow of outside air.

In Caroll, Sonia Walsh is a parent and member of staff at Carroll Public High Schools as head drama instructor and speech coach. After seeing one daughter off to college, she and her youngest, a highschooler, both headed back to school. Carroll is not far from Smithfield-Farmland Foods.

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“I think the school district is doing a lot, but I also think we are going to reach some bad numbers fairly quickly,” she said.

The Carroll school board opted to recommend masks but not require them; however, Kuemper Catholic School in Carroll mandates masks and has implemented significant mitigation strategies.

Walsh has opted in on masks. “My child wears a mask and when I’m in the building I’ll wear a mask, too,” she said.

Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer and native Iowan who occasionally reports and writes for IowaWatch. This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

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