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WATCH NOW: 1,031 cases reported at Tyson

WATCH NOW: 1,031 cases reported at Tyson

WATERLOO — Production resumed Thursday at a Waterloo meatpacking plant where more than 1,000 workers previously were stricken with COVID-19.

Black Hawk County Health Department officials said there were 1,031 reported cases of the disease among the roughly 2,800 workers at the Tyson Fresh Meats hog-processing facility.

The total released during a news briefing Thursday was significantly higher than the 444 positive cases the Iowa Department of Public Health reported earlier this week regarding the Tyson outbreak, which led the plant to cease operations April 22.

Joshua Pikora, disease surveillance and investigation manager for the department, said the state’s figures only included confirmed positive cases from on-site testing at Tyson. The county numbers also included employees who tested positive through local health care providers and serology tests for workers showing COVID-19 antibodies.

Black Hawk County had 1,703 total reported cases and 21 deaths from COVID-19 through 12:30 p.m. Thursday, health officials said. That’s an increase of 100 cases and one death from a day earlier.

County public health director Nafissa Cisse Egbounye noted the pandemic has hit minorities, which make up a large portion of Tyson’s work force, particularly hard. Five percent of ethnic minorities have contracted COVID-19 compared with just 0.8% of whites.

“The beauty of Black Hawk County lies in the diversity of its people, and it is important that we recognize the impact in our marginalized communities,” she said.

County and Tyson officials used the majority of Thursday’s news briefing to discuss safety improvements, new testing procedures, and other steps the company made before reopening the slaughter operation Thursday with plans to resume processing Friday.

“I want to assure the public our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their loved ones, and our community here in Waterloo,” said Tom Hart, plant manager. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to keep our team members safe and to ensure that the spread is not happening inside our plant and that our team members know how to keep themselves safe at work at at home.”

The plant is reopening at a maximum 50 percent capacity.

“That’s not because of the absenteeism,” Hart said. “Some of these team members have been off for 17 or 14 days. We want to make sure we break them into the jobs properly.”

Bob Waters, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 431, gave his blessing to the reopening and praised Tyson for working with local health officials to ensure worker safety.

“They really impressed me with the changes they made in the plant,” Waters said. “I 100% endorse the plant opening up.

“The plant right now is germ-free, bug-free,” he added. “So please everybody adhere to social distancing at home as you would in the plant.”

Meanwhile, county officials were urging residents to continue exercising extreme caution, wearing face masks, and practicing social distancing as restrictions on some businesses and activities loosen this week.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is allowing campgrounds, malls, health spas, and several other retail establishments to reopen Friday under certain restrictions.

Sheriff Tony Thompson said he was counting on residents to continue taking steps to keep themselves and others as safe as possible.

“They recognize the fact that our numbers are not decreasing yet; we have not yet seen a plateau,” Thompson said. “Quite frankly our numbers in the death category are starting to increase. The realities here in Black Hawk County are far different than they are in other places in the state.

“It’s against our better judgment (to reopen), and its not what we want to encourage,” he added. “It’s against everything that we’re seeing in the metrics right now for Black Hawk County, but there’s nothing we can say or do about it.”

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Related to this story

This week, Gov. Kim Reynolds relaxed closure guidelines for the 22 "hot-zone" counties affected by coronavirus, including Black Hawk County, allowing the store to open.

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