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1 dead of COVID-19 in Black Hawk Co.; Tyson now classified as having 'outbreak'

1 dead of COVID-19 in Black Hawk Co.; Tyson now classified as having 'outbreak'

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

WATERLOO — Black Hawk County has reported its first death from COVID-19, officials disclosed Thursday.

“Today’s a very, very difficult day for Black Hawk County,” said County Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye.

The news came as Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered residents in Northeast Iowa to practice stricter social distancing until at least April 30, and officials confirmed workers at Tyson Foods’ Waterloo plant are infected with the coronavirus.

Black Hawk County reported 65 new cases Thursday for a total of 150, and eight are hospitalized.

“Our increase in numbers is due to an outbreak in Tyson Foods Waterloo,” Egbuonye said

She declined to say how many cases were confirmed at the plant.

There were 146 new cases of coronavirus in Iowa and seven new deaths, bringing Iowa’s total number of cases to 2,141 and total deaths to 60.

Tama County reported three more cases and one death for a total of 114 cases and four deaths. Allamakee County added one death and two new cases. The county now has 26 cases and three deaths.

Bremer and Howard counties also added one case each.

Tyson situation

Egbuonye thanked Tyson for allowing health officials inside its facilities last week and talked about measures the company implemented to prevent coronavirus spread.

But she said some things were largely out of Tyson’s control.

“We have witnessed the difficulty of social distancing in Tyson,” Egbuonye said. “It’s a problem that I truly believe is very difficult for food production facilities.”

Employees of Tyson had been saying as much, telling The Courier this week they were terrified coronavirus had been spreading amid inadequate protections by the company.

“There was clearly more that could have and should have been done,” Sheriff Tony Thompson said. “Today, our entire countywide health care delivery and virus response system is paying the price for those lapses in protocol.”

Any employee of Tyson in Waterloo experiencing symptoms is eligible for coronavirus testing at MercyOne, UnityPoint-Allen Hospital and Peoples Clinic. County officials received 1,500 new test kits from the state to facilitate that.

The goal is to “understand what the scope of the outbreak may be and to get in front of that,” Reynolds said, without directly responding to questions about whether she would consider ordering the plant or others closed.

Thompson said comments he made at Monday’s briefing seemed to lay the blame for increased cases on workers, but said Thursday that business owners needed to shoulder blame as well.

“With the impact of the COVID-19 virus on our community, we truly need businesses to look at their operations more from a public safety perspective now, and not from a production perspective,” he said.

He pointed out that Black Hawk County just two weeks ago had only eight confirmed cases of coronavirus, and a week ago was at 21.

“Today, Black Hawk County is fighting an overwhelming battle against increasing numbers due to an apathetic approach by a small few,” Thompson said. “That small few have now infected over 100 unwilling, unknowing and unnecessary victims — and this reality pains me to my very being.”

Tyson said Wednesday that two workers have died following an outbreak at its Columbus Junction plant, where at least 148 have become infected. That plant has been closed since April 6, but the company hopes to reopen it as early as next week.

State Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat, called the situation at Tyson in Waterloo “a mess” that the state and company must fix. He said workers, including many immigrants and refugees, are reporting people at the plant are sick and others are afraid to show up for fear of catching the virus.

“I expect we’re going to have a huge outbreak,” Dotzler said.

New restrictions

Reynolds is banning nearly all gatherings for social, community, recreational, leisure and sporting purposes in the region that includes Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Dubuque, known as Region 6.

Previously, the governor banned gatherings larger than 10 statewide while recommending even stricter voluntary social distancing practices. But she had been one of the nation’s only governors not to issue any state or local stay-at-home orders, even though she had closed schools and many types of businesses.

Under the new order, residents in the northeastern region can only gather with household members and must do everything possible to stay six feet away from others when in public. Weddings, funerals and other religious gatherings are exceptions and can include up to 10 people.

The order does not close any more businesses. But it directs employers to evaluate whether more of their workers can stay home and to take “reasonable precautions” to protect those who go in.

Violating the order, which takes effect at 11:59 p.m. and lasts through April 30, is a simple misdemeanor.

The order affects Allamakee, Benton, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Grundy, Howard, Jones, Linn, and Winneshiek counties, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Waterloo, Cedar Falls

Waterloo officials announced the city is closing public golf courses, the dog park and tennis courts.

South Hills Golf Course, Gates Golf Course, and Irv Warren Golf Course will be closed immediately, along with Pat Bowlsby Memorial Dog Park and the Byrnes Tennis Center.

Leisure Services Director Paul Huting said the decision is similar to those being made by several other Northeast Iowa communities within COVID-19 Region 6. Golf courses are being closed in Cedar Rapids and Waverly, with many other area communities working on implementation of similar closures.

City parks and trails will remain open but playgrounds, ball diamonds, and basketball courts will continue to be closed. Residents are welcome to visit parks individually or in small household groups but should practice social distancing of at least six feet.

The city of Cedar Falls said in accordance with the proclamation, all social, community, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings of any size with individuals other than members of the same household who reside together are prohibited.

All people who leave their homes must practice social distancing by remaining at least six feet from people other than members of the same household who reside together (this includes the cancellation of driveway parties, playdates, and other social interactions with family members who do not reside in a resident’s immediate home).

Basketball courts, pickle ball courts, golf courses, walking trails, city parks, dog parks, and other public recreational spaces will remain open; however, users must abide by the social distancing order and only members of the same household can attend or participate together. Public playground equipment will continue to be prohibited.

The matrix

The new restrictions came after the region’s score increased to 10 on a 12-point system the Iowa Department of Public Health is using to guide the state’s response. It was the first time one of the six regions reached 10, which was the trigger for stricter public health interventions. Regions that include Des Moines and Iowa City were at nine on Thursday.

Reynolds said northeastern Iowa was seeing an “increase of virus activity,” including outbreaks at long-term care facilities, more severe illnesses and higher hospitalization rates.

Critics of Iowa’s matrix have argued it is arbitrary and ensures a more effective response only after the virus has spread and infected vulnerable people. So far, 28 people have died in the northeastern region, including at least 17 at a Cedar Rapids nursing home.

Reynolds confirmed two new virus outbreaks at nursing homes in Marion and Muscatine. So far, the nine state-recognized outbreaks at long-term care facilities have accounted for nearly half of Iowa’s deaths, Reynolds said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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As Black Hawk County's confirmed coronavirus case count has risen dramatically in the past week, workers at Tyson Fresh Meats -- many afraid of losing their jobs -- are sounding the alarm about working conditions and alleging their employer isn't providing information, allowing workers to come in with respiratory symptoms and otherwise covering up the presence of the deadly virus.

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