Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)
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DES MOINES, Iowa – How many manufacturing plants, processing plants, and other businesses in Iowa have experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 is uncertain. The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) does not readily provide updated numbers of outbreaks. The administration provided the last official list of outbreaks in businesses on May 5.

Unlike long-term care (LTC) facilities that only require five cases of COVID-19 to be considered an outbreak, businesses have to have at least ten percent of their workforce ill or absent before they are deemed to have an outbreak. This policy is in line with its approach to influenza and other illnesses. Unlike LTC facilities, IDPH does not require businesses to report COVID-19 outbreaks.

Also, IDPH keeps a running tally of COVID-19 outbreaks in LTC facilities on the state’s COVID-19 website. Gov. Kim Reynolds and IDPH deputy director Sarah Reisetter have stated during recent press conferences that reporters will have to ask directly about outbreaks to receive any update. 

“The Iowa Department of Public Health becomes aware of outbreaks at businesses when the employers tell us or when the state facilitates testing at a particular facility. Businesses are not currently required to report outbreaks to the Department of Public Health,” Reisetter said during Thursday’s press conference. 

“Iowa’s law allows confirmation of outbreaks only when necessary to protect the health of the public. We’ve determined confirming outbreaks and businesses is only necessary when the employment setting constitutes a high-risk environment for the potential of COVID-19 transmission,” she added.

However, Iowa’s law gives the state epidemiologist and director of IDPH latitude with reporting business outbreaks. 

“If information contained in the report concerns a business, information disclosing the identity of the business may be released to the public when the state epidemiologist or the director of public health determines such a release of information necessary for the protection of the health of the public,” Iowa Code 139.A.3(c) reads.

The law does not give the state the authority to require businesses to report their outbreaks. Only health care providers, hospitals, and clinical labs are required to do so under Iowa law.

Counties with processing plant and manufacturing plant outbreaks have seen a jump in COVID-19 cases. On May 5, IDPH reported that Premium National Beef in Tama had 258 cases. Tama County has 400 reported cases that include 54 reported cases in two LTC facilities in the county. Neighboring Marshall County reports 883 cases. 

On May 5, they reported 444 cases of COVID-19 at the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, and Black Hawk County reports 1,724 cases. A processing plant outbreak led to a jump in cases in Woodbury County that now report 2,763 cases. They also reported 730 cases at the Tyson Foods plant in Perry. 

Polk County saw an increase in cases, reporting 3,930, but there is no explanation where the disease is transmitted. 

Thursday, Reisetter confirmed that the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Storm Lake has an outbreak. She said 555 of the plant’s 2,517 employees tested positive. Storm Lake now hosts a Test Iowa site, and Buena Vista County reports a total of 700 cases.

Reisetter notes that employers access tests from various locations, not just the state; IDPH is not aware of all testing. She noted IDPH shares contact tracing and case investigation responsibilities with county public health departments. Reisetter also noted that IDPH does not routinely ask businesses about their number of employees. 

“So we haven’t had ready access to all of the information necessary to confirm outbreaks the point in time when 10 percent of employees working in these high-risk environments might test positive,” she said.

“We are working on these processes so we can continue to provide information to the public that is necessary for Iowans to protect themselves,” Reisetter added.

Reynolds stated that her administration had contacted nearly 50 manufacturing and processing plants to offer and coordinate testing. 

“Today, we have completed diagnostic testing for more than 13,400 employees and serology testing for nearly 7000. And even more than those numbers have gone through our Test Iowa sites,” she said.

“By working with our manufacturers and processors to provide surveillance testing, we’re able to quickly identify and isolate positive cases, get our workers on a path to recovery, conduct case investigation to determine the scope of the virus, and with proper PPE, and CDC guidance in place, give employees the assurance of a safe workplace and employers the information needed in decision making,” Reynolds added.

IDPH reports that 18,584 Iowans tested positive for COVID-19. The positivity rate on Wednesday was 6.7 percent, with 212 testing positive out of 2,948 tests processed. To date, 143,380 Iowans were tested for a per capita rate of one in 22 completing a test. 

To date, 10,424 have recovered from COVID-19 for 56 percent of those tested positive. There have been a total of 506 deaths reported statewide to date. 

There are 383 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, 112 are in ICU, 67 are on ventilators, and 30 are new admissions. There are 3,370 inpatient beds, 478 ICU beds, and 745 ventilators available statewide. 

Northwest Iowa has seen an increase in hospitalizations with 106 reported on Thursday, of those 43 are in ICU, 29 are on ventilators, and six were new admissions. Sioux City hospitals have seen their highest number of cases to date, and Buena Vista County requested those hospitals take their COVID-19 patients. IDPH says 540 inpatient beds, 93 ICU beds, and 74 ventilators available in the region, so they currently have the capacity.

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