DES MOINES — As the coronavirus spreads throughout Iowa, public health officials urge Iowans to observe social distancing by remaining at least 6 feet apart.
But at food processing plants, workers sometimes stand 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 it can be difficult to adequately protect workers.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 have occurred recently at three packing plants in Iowa: 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 at the Columbus Junction plant.
Numerous workers at the Tama plant contracted the virus, company officials said.
And more than 600 cases were confirmed at the Sioux Falls plant.
Plants in Columbus Junction, Tama and Sioux Falls have closed temporarily. Tyson in Waterloo remains open.
At Waterloo, state and company officials have not published precise numbers, but local health officials witnessed a surge in coronavirus cases as a result of the outbreak there. Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and 19 other local elected officials have called for the plant to close until it is clear workers will be safe.
State officials and plant leaders say they are taking steps to protect workers. The state sent thousands of test kits to the plants to more accurately determine the outbreaks’ scope. Company officials say they are working to get employees safety equipment like face masks and shields, and are placing physical barriers between workers where possible.
There are barriers to mitigation efforts at food processing plants, 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 did not respond to inquiries about whether it has received complaints about Iowa food processing facilities or sent inspectors to the facilities since the outbreaks occurred.
State officials have stressed the need to do protect workers and get the plants reopened.
Asked if she has spoken with groups that represent workers, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she focused her communications on plant managers.
“I have really focused on 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,” Reynolds 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.
“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 tele-town hall with Iowa farmers, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said more testing and inspections are needed at packing facilities.
“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 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 production lines so workers can stand apart. At the same news conference, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said it is incumbent upon food processing plant leaders to get creative by slowing down the production line 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 published April 10 —- just before the first outbreak in Iowa, at the Columbus Junction plant —- Melissa O’Rourke, a farm and agribusiness management specialist at Iowa State University, listed several steps agricultural businesses could take to protect workers.
She also issued a warning.
“Start planning now so that you have some level of preparation,” O’Rourke wrote.
O’Rourke recommended 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 social distancing is particularly challenging.
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