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At food processing plants in Iowa, some workers stand 6 inches apart. Three plants have COVID-19 outbreaks.
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At food processing plants in Iowa, some workers stand 6 inches apart. Three plants have COVID-19 outbreaks.

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DES MOINES — As the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout Iowa, public health officials are urging Iowans to observe social distancing by remaining at least 6 feet apart.

But at food processing plants throughout the state, workers continue to do their jobs while standing fewer than 6 inches apart.

A delicate balancing act is taking place at these plants: experts say the facilities must remain open in order to preserve the food supply chain, but because of the nature of the work done there, it can be difficult to adequately protect workers during a global pandemic.

Outbreaks of the novel coronavirus have occurred recently at three Iowa food processing plants in Iowa: at 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 as a result of the outbreak at the Columbus Junction plant.

Numerous workers at the Tama plant contracted the virus, company officials said.

And more than 600 cases of the virus were confirmed at the Sioux Falls plant.

All three plants have closed temporarily.

At the Waterloo plant, state and company officials have not published precise numbers, but local health officials told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that they have witnessed a surge in coronavirus cases as a result of the outbreak there. That plant remains open, although Waterloo mayor Quentin Hart on Friday called for the plant to close until it is clear that workers will be safe.

State officials and plant leaders say they are taking steps to protect workers at these food processing plants. State officials are sending thousands of test kits to the plants so the companies may more accurately determine the outbreaks’ scope. Company officials say they are working to get their employees safety equipment like face masks and shields, and are placing physical barriers between workers where possible.

There is a limit to how successful prevention and mitigation efforts can be to protect workers 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, which provides oversight to ensure workers’ safety, did not respond to multiple messages seeking information on whether it has received complaints about the Iowa food processing facilities or has sent inspectors to the facilities since the outbreaks occurred.

Iowa elected officials have stressed a need to do what is necessary to protect workers and also get the closed plants reopened and operating.

Asked if she has spoken with groups that represent workers at Iowa’s food processing plants, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she focused her communication with plant managers.

“I have really focused on (communicating with) 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 to help strike that balance between productive plants and protected workers.

“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 those production lines in order to allow workers to stand apart. During the news conference with Judge, 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 that was 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 myriad steps agricultural businesses could take to protect their workers.

In her paper, O’Rourke also issued a warning.

“Start planning now so that you have some level of preparation,” O’Rourke wrote.

O’Rourke wrote that agribusiness can protect workers by having 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 in those food processing plants, it’s the social distancing that is particularly challenging.

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