After fending off the question for more than a week, Tyson Foods Inc. confirmed Friday night that positive tests for COVID-19 have been found among its Perry labor force, according to a metro media report.
According to KCCI’s Max Diekneite, Tyson Foods Inc. Communications Manager Liz Croston on Friday “confirmed that multiple people who work at the Perry plant have tested positive for COVID-19.”
Diekneite said he “asked this question before, but they are just now confirming.” ThePerryNews.com also repeatedly asked the company whether there were any positive cases at the Perry facility.
Croston told ThePerryNews.com in an April 10 email, “For privacy reasons, we’re not sharing specifics about any team member’s health.” She repeated herself in an April 17 email, telling ThePerryNews.com that “for privacy reasons, we’re not sharing specifics about any team member’s health or disclosing confirmed cases.”
It is unclear how or why Croston overcame the “privacy reasons” that prevented an earlier disclosure, but the process governing the withholding or releasing of public health information is opaque.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 restricts the disclosure of “individually identifiable health information” but does not restrict the disclosure of “de-identified health information” that “neither identifies nor provides a reasonable basis to identify an individual.”
To release the mere number of positive cases in a population — not “specifics about any team member” but a bare number — would presumably not entail the identification of individuals, yet both the private and public entities in charge, Tyson and the Dallas County Public Health Department, said the information is medically confidential — until it isn’t.
Ann Cochran, health navigation coordinator in the Dallas County Public Health Department, said Friday her department “would not be able to either confirm or deny” that there are any positive COVID-19 cases at the Perry plant. “That would definitely fall under HIPAA guidelines,” she said. “We would not be able to give you that information.”
Unconfirmed reports received Friday from employees at the Perry plant claim some 27 suspected or confirmed cases have been identified.
“We cannot confirm or deny that there are 27 cases at the Perry plant,” Cochran said. “We cannot say yes or no. That is not something that we can say.” She referred further questions about HIPAA regulations to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
“The process is it’s up to the company to say when they need help,” Cochran said. “We have been in close contact with Tyson for weeks, letting them know if they need help, we certainly can help.”
She said the county health department has provided flyers “with dozens of languages” that describe the symptoms of COVID-19 and explain how to properly wear a face mask. The Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Perry employees immigrant laborers from a variety of countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Myanmar and several Latin American nations.
“We’ve been really working very closely with Tyson,” Cochran said. “We’ve had good conversations with the manager of the human services, with their registered nurses, and we’ve reached out to them, and they have also with us. We’ve had open communication. At this point, we feel that they are knowledgeable about what they can do to mitigate, and they have begun.”
Tyson’s Coston said the company has been diligently educating employees about the novel coronavirus and ways to avoid catching it.
“We can tell you that we’re taking measures to protect our people,” Coston said. “If there is a confirmed case at one of our locations, as part of our protocol and in collaboration with health officials, we notify anyone who has been in close contact with the person and instruct them to go home and self-quarantine. We also inform team members who have not been exposed and provide information to our supervisors so they can help answer questions.”
A growing number of COVID-19 cases have cropped up among workers in beef, pork and poultry processing plants around the U.S., with recent days seeing reports of some 30 cases at the JBS plant in Worthington, Minnesota, 50 cases at the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, 108 cases at the National Beef Packing in Tama, Iowa, 186 cases at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, 644 cases at Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an undisclosed number of cases at the Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and others.
In reaction, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) plans to announce Monday a boycott of Iowa’s meatpacking plants because they believe COVID-19 “is running rampant in Iowa and the nation at many food processing facilities,” LULAC President Joe Henry of Des Moines said Friday.
“We are preparing for a national boycott of meat processing facilities as the only way to stop the insanity and unsafe working conditions,” Henry said. “We have sent our demands for worker safety and health to the top meat processing corporations today and will begin a consumer boycott next week on those who abuse our Latino and immigrant communities.”
The closure of processing plants “is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Smithfield President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said this week in a company statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals.”