Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo, Iowa, has been the ground-zero of yet another horrifying coronavirus outbreak as employees were spiking temperatures and at least one employee was vomiting while working on the production line.
In a New York Times expose, the plant is described as a place where staff, mostly immigrants, are elbow to elbow breaking down a hog carcass on a conveyor belt. Despite the outbreak of COVID-19 among meat processing plants around the country, few of the staff had face coverings, though most were bandanas.
“At least one employee vomited while working on the production line, and several left the facility with soaring temperatures, according to a worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job and local advocates who have spoken with workers at the plant,” the Times said.
Neither Tyson nor the union could get information about workers who tested positive because it violates HIPAA laws preventing third parties from obtaining someone else’s medical information.
“One worker who died had taken Tylenol before entering the plant to lower her temperature enough to pass the screening, afraid that missing work would mean forgoing a bonus, said a person who knows the worker’s family and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their privacy,” said the Times.
Older workers and those with asthma and diabetes have been seriously concerned about entering the plant.
“It was really a time of fear and panic,” said state Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, who works at a coronavirus clinic. “They had not slowed the line down. They were not practicing any sort of social distancing.”
Nearly two dozen Tyson staff members were taken to the emergency room on April 12. The company has tried to communicate the specifics of the disease, but misinformation, a lack of trust, has created problems at the plant. They were confused about why so many people started getting sick and missing work. Supervisors claimed “it was the flu,” and others were warned not to talk about the virus at the plant.
Tyson said it had “worked with the information available to us at the time to help keep our team members safe,” an email said. They claimed that had the Black Hawk County Health Department made decisions earlier, it would have impacted their decisions.
Local officials, including the sheriff, begged Tyson to close the facility when it became clear there was an outbreak, around April 14. Tyson refused.
Three days later, the company sent out a text message to all employees saying: “Waterloo Tyson is running. Thank you, team members! WE ARE PROUD OF YOU!”
Just five days later, the plant finally decided to close, not because of the virus, however. The company claimed “worker absenteeism” was a key factor, along with more workers who ended up testing positive.
“As of Thursday, the county health department had recorded 1,031 coronavirus infections among Tyson employees — more than a third of the work force. Some are on ventilators. Three have died, according to Tyson,” the Times reported.