In Lexington, More Questions Than Answers Around Tyson Plant's COVID-19 Outbreak

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April 22, 2020 - 5:45am

Dawson County’s confirmed number of COVID-19 cases has more than doubled over the past week. But little is known publicly about where cases are concentrated. Some community members are concerned they’re being left to guess how many are tied to the local meatpacking plant.

Around a quarter of the Lexington community works at the local Tyson plant, processing food for consumers across the country. In a town of 10,000, that means most are still going to work, or know someone who is, despite the risk of COVID-19.

Alfredo Salinas, who is close with a worker at the plant, says employees started bracing for an outbreak weeks ago.

“You hear stories about South Dakota, you hear stories about other plants in Iowa,” he said. “It was just a matter of time before it happened here, and I think it's happening now.”

Gladys Godinez, a community organizer with the Center for Rural Affairs says an outbreak at the plant is risky for everybody in town. “You think in a rural town, you don't have to worry because of the spacing. But in Lexington, we have a lot of our majority working at bigger entities such as Tyson and Walmart,” she said. “So if one of us gets sick, chances are a lot of us are going to get sick.”

She says healthcare providers have seen the increasing scope of Dawson County’s outbreak for days. But that information hasn’t reached the community so easily, especially when it comes to cases at the local Tyson plant.

“I have had contact with hospital employees,” she said, “and they have said ‘Gladys, there's hundreds.’ I asked, ‘Are they all from Tyson?’ And the answer was yes.”

Ruth Maldonado, who works at a local immigration office, knows several Tyson workers with COVID-19 symptoms. She’s taken a few calls over the past few weeks from neighbors with loved ones who are sick. “She started telling me, ‘I don't know what I should do. My husband is not doing well.’ He works at Tyson, and she works at Tyson.”

The woman took her husband to the ER. He wasn’t admitted, but hospital staff did give the family a local number to report his symptoms. “Once they called, they just said ‘You need to be isolated. Just drink fluids, you can’t go to work.’” she said. “And then they told the wife, ‘You should not go to work either.’”

She says many aren’t being screened, either: that makes it hard for her to trust any official case count. Limited testing is nothing new. In some towns—like Lexington—the state has brought in the National Guard to increase capacity.

But Two Rivers Public Health Director Jeremy Eschliman says interpreting case numbers also requires extra resources, like an epidemiologist.  “We work on a team of about 12 people,” he explained. “Those are positions that are typically in more urban settings like Lincoln, Omaha, and even at the state level.”

Cases have escalated rapidly in the district: as of Tuesday afternoon, there are 244 cases across the department's jurisdiction.

“We’ve received so many cases, we're still working through those,” he said. “Is it fair to say there is a significant amount that may be linked in some way [to Tyson]? I think that's fair.”

The Central District Health Department, which oversees Grand Island’s outbreak, has also struggled. About 40% of its 500+ cases are tied to the local JBS meatpacking plant: that became known after the state sent extra staffers to help with data work.

But Gladys Godinez says the company can still be clear with its employees about whether there’s an outbreak at all: according to several workers, that hasn’t been the case. 

“Our biggest question, one, is just getting that transparency: Hey, Tyson Foods, do you have any positive cases of COVID-19? And if so, can you tell us how many? Right? That's basic,” Godinez said.

Instead, employees are left to wonder if they’ve encountered somebody who became sick. 

“There's just assumptions. So maybe there's a person there one day, and maybe they're not there the next day.”

We reached out to Tyson for comment on their communication policies with employees but did not hear back in time for publication. But Tyson has confirmed having implemented some safety precautions in the plant, like taking temperatures and giving out masks.

But some workers say those policies lack meaning if they’re relying on hearsay for case numbers. 

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