Weathering a COVID-19 Outbreak

Iowa County Sees Coronavirus Spike While Country Reopens and Details on Positive Cases Scarce

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Jose Ibarra, a Storm Lake, Iowa, City Council member and a sales manager for a local electronics store, said he worried about what would happen to business economically during the pandemic. He was pleasantly surprised to see sales increase as packing-plant workers got bonuses and stimulus checks. (DTN photos by Chris Clayton)

STORM LAKE, Iowa (DTN) -- The coronavirus is still spreading in parts of rural America and more cases are showing up as testing increases.

Communities with spikes in COVID-19 cases say they are left working out responses themselves as stay-at-home orders are cancelled and business restrictions are largely going away as well. It's mostly up to businesses and individuals how they handle the virus.

Business is returning to as normal as possible in Storm Lake while the community now faces one of the bigger COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.

Storm Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County in the northwest part of Iowa. The county now has 1,600 reported cases out of a population of about 19,600 people. Just three weeks ago, the county had 227 cases. The number of cases doubled the week of June 7 alone. On a per-capita basis, Buena Vista County is one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the country, behind only Lee, Arkansas, according to a New York Times database tracking cases around the United States. Buena Vista County also has eight reported fatalities from COVID-19.

But the spike in cases has not come with any new official government restrictions and limited information is being released about the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Tyson Foods announced June 2 that 591 workers at its plant tested positive for COVID-19. More than 1,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since then, but state and local public health officials have not released information about new cases in the county outside of basic number updates on a state website.

Tyson Foods has both pork and turkey processing plants in town. The company shut down its pork plant for cleaning for five days after it tested its 2,303 employees and found 591 workers were infected. The high volume of testing began after 58 workers were tested by the Department of Health or their local health-care providers, Tyson said. Tyson added that 75% of the workers who tested positive did not show any symptoms and otherwise would not be identified.

Responding to DTN on Tuesday, Liz Croston, a spokesperson for Tyson, said the company had no plans to release further information about cases beyond the June 2 news release. At least one of Buena Vista County's 10 fatalities was a 60-year-old Tyson employee who died last week.

REOPENING THE COUNTRY

Packing plants have been under pressure from the Trump administration to reopen and remain open since the president signed an executive order in late April invoking the Defense Production Act, directing plants to remain open. USDA issued a news release last week touting that major packing plants nationally were averaging 95% of their operating capacity from a year ago.

Vice President Mike Pence visited Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa, on Tuesday, about 125 miles east of Storm Lake, to celebrate the reopening of the country with Gov. Kim Reynolds. "People are going back to work. They're going back to worship. We're getting back to our -- to our lives," Pence said. "And the American people should be proud. We're going back to stores, going back to restaurants. And with the help from the men and women of Winnebago, we're also enjoying the great outdoors, I'm told, like almost never before. We're putting American manufacturing back to work."

TESTING FOR THE VIRUS

Testing in Buena Vista County has jumped in the past month. Test Iowa, a private contractor hired for testing in the state, shows Buena Vista County had 7,430 tests as of June 16. Statewide, roughly one in 14 of Iowa's total population has been tested. Local officials attribute some of the county's higher numbers to having a coronavirus Test Iowa site for nearly a month now.

"And so the more you test, the more cases you are going to get," said Storm Lake Mayor Mike Porscher. "We've just had a lot of testing going on, which naturally is going to bump up the figures, to some extent. There is a lot more going on than just increased testing, but I think that inflated the numbers, particularly compared to other counties."

A spike in cases isn't necessarily a function of more testing. According to Iowa's coronavirus website, there are 19 other counties in the state with more COVID-19 tests conducted than Buena Vista County, but some show significantly fewer positive cases. Mills County in Southwest Iowa, for instance, has about 4,000 fewer residents than Buena Vista County. It has conducted 11,800 tests, but has recorded only 24 positive cases so far.

BUSINESSES DECIDE HOW TO HANDLE OPENING

Porscher said the community was unfortunate to get hit with a high volume of cases after Gov. Kim Reynolds started lifting most of the state's business and community restrictions. "We keep preaching social distancing and wearing a mask and that type of stuff as far as the city is concerned, but our hands are tied right now with the governor and the state having opened up just about everything now. That makes it extremely difficult rather than if we had these cases two months ago and it would have been easier to manage," Porscher said. "It's just hard to control the social distancing now with no regulations in place any longer except for the regulations we have on city-owned property," he said.

With businesses open, warmer weather and more people wanting to get outside, Porscher said managing the spread of the virus is far more challenging. Some businesses remain cautious, though. Some restaurants have remained closed or limited to carry-out service, while other restaurants and bars have opened. "So, we have some places that are taking precautions," he said. "We still have several restaurants that do not feel comfortable opening up and several other businesses that are adhering to the restrictions even though they do not have to anymore. I appreciate the responsibility those businesses are taking."

On Tuesday, the Walmart in Storm Lake closed in midafternoon until Thursday morning to allow more time for a cleaning company to come in and further sanitize the store. In a comment to DTN, a spokeswoman for Walmart said the company has felt the impact of the coronavirus, but Walmart is not able to provide information on infections for privacy reasons. "Information related to COVID-19 cases should come from local health officials," said Tiffany Wilson, director of communications for Walmart.

GOVERNMENT STAYS QUIET

The Buena Vista County Department of Public Health did not respond to questions from DTN about COVID-19 cases in the county. The Iowa Department of Public Health also did not respond to questions about COVID-19 cases in Buena Vista County.

Rob Colerick, CEO of Buena Vista Regional Medical Center, responded in an email that patient confidentiality limits some of the specifics he is allowed to share about COVID-19 patients. Colerick said he felt confident the hospital staff had prepared for the situation. "Our prep work has helped the BVRMC team handle COVID and non-COVID patient needs," Colerick stated to DTN in an email. "While we are busy, I would not say we are overwhelmed. We have many resources internally and with other hospitals in the region."

Some people in the community would like more information about what's going on with the jump in cases. Sarah Huddleston, a local candidate for state representative, works collecting data for university research on Latino families related to health, food security and overall well-being. That work now includes collecting data on how the coronavirus is changing their lives. "There is a lot of mystery and there is not a lot of communication or real facts on the numbers out there," Huddleston said.

Emilia Marroquin is a local school board member in Storm Lake and works with Huddleston and others as part of community health group "Salud," which means health in Spanish. Marroquin also worked with the Iowa Department of Latino Affairs on the development of a coronavirus hotline. From her contacts with packing-plant workers, Marroquin said they are frustrated about the lack of information on positive cases, but also under pressure to show up unless they have tested positive.

"Everybody is scared about the situation," Marroquin said. "They (Tyson officials) say they are concerned about the employees, but mainly they are worried about production. And if people are not feeling safe and call in and say, 'I don't want to come to work because I don't feel safe.' They're not accepting that as an excuse for not showing up to work."

Marroquin said most information is word-of-mouth, but little or no information is coming from Tyson Foods, public health officials or the state. Right now, people in the community don't know if they have had contact with a person who was infected and there is no contact tracing to alert them.

"Everybody is in a blind mode. We don't know exactly what's going on. We are getting information about how many cases are in the community, but that's it." She added, "Beyond that, we have no information, which I understand is confidential. But we don't have information on if the cases are in Storm Lake or somewhere else in the county. So nobody is giving us specific information, which is sad because we don't want to be against Tyson at all because we know it's our major employer and they do what they can and it's something they didn't ask to have happen."

City Council Member Jose Ibarra said the community as a whole has responded well. Some businesses are open while others remain closed or have limited their capacity. "Mostly, it's been life goes on. We haven't seen the economic issues that have happened in most big places because most of the people here are still working," Ibarra said. "It really hasn't been that drastic of a change since this started in March. If you walk down Main Street, you still see people out. You still see them out there, wearing a mask, but life has to go on. You cannot just seclude yourself and go inside and, you know, pray that this goes away. It's not going to go away anytime soon and we need to get used to living with it."

This week high school sports also returned in Iowa. Storm Lake's high school baseball and softball teams traveled Monday to Spirt Lake, Iowa, for their first games of the season.

New York Times: Coronavirus map and case count https://www.nytimes.com/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton