DES MOINES, Iowa — A top state public health official confirmed an additional COVID-19 outbreak at a meatpacking plant in Storm Lake, but said businesses are not required to report widespread infection to the state's health department.
Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, announced at the governor's Thursday news conference that 555 of 2,517 employees at a Tyson Foods meat processing plant in Storm Lake tested positive for COVID-19. That's 22% of the plant's workforce.
On Wednesday, the state said the plant didn't meet its 10% threshold for publicly reporting an outbreak, which officials said they will only reveal when asked by the press.
"While we know there's a high level of interest in IDPH announcing outbreaks at businesses, the most important thing for Iowans to know is how to take care of yourself and your health," Reisetter said during Thursday's announcement.
On Thursday, they named the Tyson outbreak in Storm Lake unprompted by journalists, which follows a single-day surge in Buena Vista County on Tuesday with more than 400 new COVID-19 cases reported. As of 11 a.m. Thursday, Buena Vista was reporting 701 total COVID-19 cases.
Tyson Foods on Wednesday confirmed "large-scale" COVID-19 testing in Storm Lake but did not disclose test results, saying they would do so once "complete data is available." There are two meatpacking plants owned by Tyson in Storm Lake, one other under the Tyson subsidiary of Hillshire Brands.
Reisetter on Thursday said businesses are not required to report outbreaks to the state, even though guidance from IDPH in April asked businesses to "please report" if 10% or more of the employees showed COVID-19 symptoms.
"Businesses are not currently required to report an outbreak to the Iowa Department of Public Health," she said. "Additionally, Iowa law allows confirmation of outbreaks only when necessary to protect the health of the public."
Later Thursday afternoon, State Auditor Rob Sand, who has sought information related to outbreaks, in a statement pointed to a section of Iowa law that allows the governor's administration has the ability to change that policy and require businesses report infections at any time.
Reisetter said the department isn't "aware of all of the testing that is occurring" since businesses are accessing testing from a variety of sources, not just the state. She also mentioned the case investigations—follow-up interviews tracking down close contacts and whereabouts when a positive case is identified—are facilitated by both local county health departments and the state.
"The Iowa Department of Public Health does not routinely collect and store information about the number of employees at different businesses," Reisetter said. "So we haven't had ready access to all of the information necessary to confirm out right at the point in time when 10% of employees working in these high risk environments might come out."
There have been confirmed outbreaks at seven other meatpacking plant facilities and one at a manufacturing company. Officials announced outbreaks on May 5 at Tyson in Waterloo, Tyson in Perry, Tyson in Columbus Junction, Iowa Premium in Tama and TPI Composites, a windblade manufacturing company in Newton.
On May 13, they confirmed an outbreak at Upper Iowa Beef in Lime Springs. On Tuesday, two additional outbreaks at Perdue Farms facilities in Sioux City and Sioux Center were confirmed by the state, though the company tested and confirmed positive cases weeks earlier.