Hundreds of workers at a Tyson Foods beef plant in Dakota City are still infected with the coronavirus, though company officials say the facility has weathered the worst of the outbreak there and is gradually ramping up its operations.
As of Friday, Tyson reported 786 active coronavirus cases at the northeastern Nebraska plant — about 17.5% of the 4,500 workers and contractors employed there. This is the first time Tyson has disclosed a specific number of coronavirus cases among its Dakota City workforce.
The lack of concrete information about the Tyson outbreak — which helped turn Dakota County into one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots — from the company and the Dakota County Health Department left local residents and elected officials frustrated.
The mayors of Dakota City and South Sioux City in Nebraska, Sioux City and Sergeant Bluff in Iowa, and North Sioux City in South Dakota released a joint statement in late April asking local and state health departments to release more data on the spiking cases in Dakota County; Woodbury County, Iowa; and Union County, South Dakota.
Dakota County, with a population of only 20,000 people, has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska, with 1,669 confirmed cases. Twenty-five people there have died, including several Tyson workers, according to relatives, community members and media reports.
The Dakota City plant was temporarily shut down in late April to sanitize the facility and test more workers for the coronavirus.
Despite the still-high number of active cases, a statement provided by Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said the situation at the plant is improving, both in terms of worker health and plant production.
Before the virus sidelined swaths of workers and slowed down the production line, the Dakota City plant churned out enough beef in a day to feed 18 million people.
“We are well past the peak of active COVID-19 cases at the facility,” the statement said. “We have resumed two shifts of our operations and the number of our team members on leave of absence continues to decrease.”
The number of active cases is also declining, Tyson said.
Widespread testing at the plant revealed workers who had the coronavirus but showed no symptoms. Anyone who tested positive was required to stay home on paid leave.
“We are committed to helping our communities better understand the coronavirus and the protective measures that can be taken to help prevent its spread,” the statement said.
Tyson did not provide the total number of workers at the plant who have tested positive since the pandemic began.
“A number of factors, primarily related to the size of our workforce and our tri-state location, have increased the complexity of our testing process, and we do not yet have a complete, verified data set,” Croston said. “We have 4,500 team members and contractors who live across 11 counties in the tri-state area.”
Workers there are spread out across the Sioux City metro area, in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. Coronavirus outbreaks have emerged at several meat and food processing plants in the Sioux City area.
The coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on meatpacking plant employees, whose close-quarters work among hundreds, even thousands, of other workers seems to have fueled the spread of the virus.
After mass testing of workers at its pork plant in Madison, Nebraska, Tyson discovered that 212 had contracted the virus.
A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said that as of Friday, 3,318 meatpacking workers in the state had tested positive for the coronavirus and 13 had died. That means that almost one-quarter of the state’s total coronavirus cases are tied to the food or meat processing industry.
Workers and advocacy groups have called for better safety measures and protections inside the plants.
Companies like Tyson have said they’ve made a number of changes to prevent the spread of the virus, including providing masks for all workers, conducting temperature checks and erecting barriers between workers when feasible.