Tyson infections came as surprise to Dallas County Public Health

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Suzanne Hegarty, left, is the director of the Dallas County Public Health Department, and Abigail Chihak, right, is the Dallas County Community Health Administrator. Ted Trewin, center, is the Dallas County Environmental Health Administrator.

If you were shocked by Tuesday morning’s announcement of a 58% COVID-19 infection rate at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Perry, then the Dallas County Public Health Department authorities were just as surprised.

“The Tyson announcement today was not known to us,” said Suzanne Hegarty, director of the Dallas County Department of Public Health, at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Dallas County Board of Health. “The numbers that were going to be announced, I heard them for the first time during the press conference just like everyone else did.”

All 730 positive cases are workers at the Perry plant, but not all are residents of Dallas County. A large number of Tyson workers commutes daily to Perry from the Des Moines metro area. Many of these workers are resettled refugees from Eritrea, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who live among their fellow refugees in communities in Polk County. Because Perry lies close to Boone, Greene and Guthrie counties, the Tyson plant also draws workers from communities in those counties.

“Tyson in Perry is kind of an interesting situation,” Hegarty said. “The reason that we didn’t put out any numbers is because their workforce is extremely across jurisdictions. Anything that we possibly could have gleaned from those test results would have been wrong simply because we only have a partial look at their workforce.”

Hegarty said she did not know how many of the 730 positive cases reported at the Perry Tyson plant represent residents of Dallas County.

“I don’t know that number off the top of my head,” she said.

The Iowa Department of Public Health also could not specify how many of the infected Tyson workers live in Dallas County.

“We report all positive cases by county, but we do not further break out the specific business testing by county,” IDPH COVID-19 Media Relations Liaison Amy A. McCoy told ThePerryNews.com Thursday.

Hegarty told the board of health that a jump in the Dallas County numbers followed the mass testing at the Tyson factory and several long-term care facilities, and more positive cases are expected.

“We have seen a spike in numbers in the past seven to 10 days in Dallas County,” she said. “We have a couple of other mass testings that are in the works but have not been 100% set up yet, so I do expect that we are going to see more confirmed cases.”

Hegarty said many COVID-19 cases in Dallas County have been mild, and many people have mistaken their illness for seasonal allergies.

“I will say as the investigative authority, on a lot of these and not just Tyson’s but a lot of cases, the vast, vast majority of people that we have talked to have not been very ill,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of people in the last couple of weeks report that they didn’t realize they had COVID because it’s allergy season and so, yeah, they have a runny nose, and they have a cough, and that runny nose and that cough might be a little worse than normal, but they really didn’t think much about it until they went in and got tested.”

The mildness of the symptoms can lead people to casually spread the highly contagious virus, she said.

“I think a lot of the problem that people are having is that they’re not realizing that they’re sick,” Hegarty said. “So, you know, their symptoms are mild enough that they’re still going out in public. They’re still going to work.”

She said the range of symptoms among infected cases in Dallas County has varied over the months.

“A lot of testing that was done before the mass testing initiative was started was only performed on symptomatic people, but their symptoms were cough and runny nose,” Hegarty told the county board of health. “We haven’t seen a huge number of fevers. At the beginning it was more respiratory, and then we moved through, and we’ve seen more muscle aches and pains. Then it seemed to move to some kind of strange symptoms, things that I’ve never heard of before with a virus, but a big one that we’re dealing with right now and hearing a lot is loss of taste and smell, and just lately, probably in the last couple of days, we’ve had more and more people reporting gastrointestinal issues, so nausea and diarrhea, those types of things.”

Hegarty said the “burn rate” for use of personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased across the county as the virus has spread.

“We’ve started going through PPE much faster in the last week mostly due to long-term care facilities because they have a much higher PPE need than a lot of other facilities do,” she said.┬áHegarty praised the Dallas County Sheriff’s office as a “wonderful partner” in helping deliver requests for PPE to nearly 100 medical service providers around Dallas County.

Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard also attended Tuesday’s Zoom meeting of the board of health and returned praise to Hegarty, who was appointed public health director in March 2019, and to Dallas County Public Health Nurse Rhonda Shoafstall and the entire Dallas County Department of Public Health.

“The last couple of months,” Leonard said, “I’ve noticed there’s a couple of people working more than me, and that’s Suzanne and Rhonda. I think the last seven weeks — I just wanted to make sure the board was aware that these two have been busting their tail for this county, and I for one appreciate it. I go out there to the EOC every day. They are there. I think they’re even working weekends, I believe, on some of these last. I know they’re working late, getting up early.”

The members of the board of health seconded Leonard’s praise and thanked Hegarty and her department for their devotion to the health and safety of the residents of Dallas County.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Quite remarkable that the state public health officials aren’t keeping local public health officials informed about what’s going on. No matter where the people at the plant live, I suspect they get gas, drive-through fast-food restaurants, stop to pick something up after work, etc. Seems to me it would be important to get these numbers so the contact tracing can be done. Nice reporting.

  2. Is Perry as a whole this high? Are we close to this? Each worker has a couple of loved ones and plenty of friends outside of work. Did all these people even catch it at Tyson or somewhere else?

    • We have no way of knowing without community-wide testing. Many Tyson workers commute to their job from elsewhere. Beyond that, it appears to be anybody’s guess.

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