CORONAVIRUS

Tyson Foods worker, 44, dies in Cedar Rapids after long battle with coronavirus

Six-week hospitalization was chronicled and widely followed online

In this May 1 photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo. An employee at the Waterloo plant died Monday af
In this May 1 photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo. An employee at the Waterloo plant died Monday after battling the coronavirus during a six-week hospitalization that was chronicled and widely followed online. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

An employee at the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo died this week after battling the coronavirus during a six-week hospitalization that was chronicled and widely followed online.

Jose Ayala, 44, died Monday at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, said his friend, Zach Medhaug, who was in the room at the time.

“It was really painful to watch,” said Medhaug, who had been providing frequent Facebook updates on his friend’s condition.

It was the third hospital where Ayala had received treatment since April 12, and his ups and downs had gained a following on social media in the six weeks since then.

The story first drew attention when Medhaug frantically, and ultimately successfully, searched for Ayala’s out-of-town relatives when Ayala was first in critical condition.

Later, Medhaug raised money to pay for Ayala’s transfer to St. Luke’s after he said doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics recommended that his treatment stop.

A UI Hospitals spokeswoman told The Gazette on Tuesday that the hospitals did not have consent on behalf of Ayala to discuss circumstances of his care, and so were not able to comment.

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Ayala is at least the fifth employee at the meat plant, Tyson’s largest pork processing facility, to die from complications of the coronavirus, according to workers’ advocates.

The other deaths have included a 65-year-old laundry department worker, a 58-year-old Bosnian refugee, a 60-year-old Latino father and a refugee from Congo.

The company earlier this month confirmed three deaths at the plant.

Black Hawk County officials have said that at least 1,031 out of the plant’s 2,800 workers have been infected by the virus. The outbreak has spread through the area and made Waterloo one of Iowa’s hardest hit cities to date.

After initially rejecting calls to close, Tyson idled the plant in Waterloo April 22 before resuming production two weeks later with new safety protocols.

Medhaug and Ayala worked together as maintenance employees at the plant for years.

Ayala was off work sick in early April after showing symptoms, and was seriously ill by the time he sought treatment at a Waterloo clinic. He was soon on a ventilator at Allen Hospital as Medhaug searched for his relatives, ultimately finding Ayala’s father and others after a Facebook post quickly spread.

After a week at Allen, Ayala was transferred to the UI Hospitals and Clinics for additional treatment that included prone ventilation.

Medhaug tested positive for the coronavirus April 20 as he was helping coordinate his friend’s care, but he experienced only mild symptoms.

Ayala had long been breathing with the help of a ventilator and was unconscious, but Medhaug said he believed his friend could hear his voice on video calls.

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Doctors at UIHC believed Ayala was unlikely to survive, Medhaug said, and if he did, would not have a good quality of life. They also said he might not survive an ambulance transfer to another hospital.

But Medhaug and Ayala’s family were not ready to give up, saying they believed he might defy the predictions. Medhaug raised $1,200 to pay for the transfer earlier this month, and it went smoothly, he said.

Ayala, a native of Laredo, Texas, who moved to Waterloo about 12 years ago to work for Tyson, showed some improvement at St. Luke’s before his condition worsened, Medhaug said.

Medhaug said he would remember his friend’s laugh and generosity, and that he was struck by the outpouring of support.

“It just shows how communities come together and help each other during trying times,” he said.

Medhaug returned to work at the plant this month. He praised the safety precautions now in place, including personal protective equipment for workers and hand sanitizing stations.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere now,” he said.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.