Outbreak at Iowa pork plant was larger than state reported

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FILE - This April 16, 2020 file photo shows the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa. One of the first coronavirus outbreaks at the Iowa meatpacking plant was more severe than previously known, with over twice as many workers becoming infected than the Iowa Department of Public Health publicly confirmed. The department announced at a May 5 news conference that 221 employees at the plant in Columbus Junction had tested positive for COVID-19. But records show that, days earlier, Tyson officials told workplace safety regulators that 522 plant employees had tested positive to their knowledge. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP, File)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The first confirmed coronavirus outbreak at an Iowa meatpacking plant was far more severe than previously known, with more than twice as many workers becoming infected than the state Department of Public Health told the public, newly released records show.

The department announced at a May 5 news conference that 221 employees at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction had tested positive for COVID-19.

But days earlier, Tyson officials told Iowa workplace safety regulators during an inspection that 522 plant employees had been infected to their knowledge, documents obtained through the open records law show.

A dozen of the plant’s roughly 1,300 workers were believed to have been hospitalized by then, and two died after contracting the virus, Tyson officials told the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The discrepancy adds to mounting questions that the state health department faces about its handling of public information during the pandemic. The department last week forced out its longtime spokeswoman, who said she was ousted for pushing hard to fulfill media requests and that the agency's delays and scripted talking points were embarrassing.

The agency has also faced criticism for seeking to charge thousands of dollars for open records requests and for not routinely announcing outbreaks in workplaces, among other things. The department said it has “gone above and beyond to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information” to the public.

The early April outbreak in Columbus Junction was the first of several at meatpacking plants across the state as the virus spread through crowded workplaces.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds took a pro-industry approach to managing those outbreaks in Iowa, the top pork-producing state. She worked with executives to continue production even as thousands of workers became infected and some died, and she applauded President Donald Trump's order to keep such plants open throughout the country.