Trump directs an assault on our town

NO TESTING. NO CASES. THAT’S HOW IT WAS UNTIL WE BECAME THE HOTTEST OF HOTSPOTS

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

President Donald Trump confirmed the apparent at his rally attended by half-a-house in Tulsa on Saturday night.

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people slow the testing down, please.”

And that’s what they did to Storm Lake — they slowed testing down by hook and by crook so that our huge pork and turkey slaughterhouses would keep cranking.

No cases, no problem. No joke. He was dead-serious.

Testing of more than 3,000 food processing workers in Buena Vista County, in the densest livestock production area in North America, was delayed by seven weeks after the first case reportedly was diagnosed at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center on March 20.

Gov. Kim Reynolds did not order up a testing regimen until April 21, and no mass testing started in Storm Lake until May 15. Government was warned about COVID-19 in January. Reynolds cut staffing at the state hygienic lab by 17.

There has been a concerted effort among government and food industry executives to order people into work without sufficient testing or following guidelines, such as keeping at least six feet apart — impossible if you want to operate at 98% efficiency. The food industry appealed to Trump, who told the government to do what it takes to avoid a squall at the meat counter.

ProPublica, the non-profit news operation, published a story June 12 after obtaining a trove of emails from states, federal officials and food companies. It documented chaos in communication, persistent pressure from meatpacking companies to get workers back into the plant, and state officials perfectly willing to accommodate them.

After meeting with executives and red-state governors, Trump ordered food processing workers to clock in and pledged to protect employers from liability in case anyone sued. The Iowa Legislature followed by lifting the bar for lawsuits filed for unsafe working conditions, and made the change retroactive to January.

Because of this assault on workers, people have needlessly died — 10 so far in our county, which has led the nation in virus infection rates. We’re scared.

Kenny Jones, 60, worked 12 years in maintenance at Tyson. A Black man originally from Chicago who loved the Bears, he lived in the Alta Westview Trailer Park with his wife Sarah and young son. While Keon celebrated his ninth birthday, Kenny was on a ventilator in Fort Dodge 60 miles away. Kenny died two days later. His widow filed for workers compensation.

“He’s super caring, always happy. That’s really the backbone, you know, just the strength of our family,” Sarah said, speaking as if Kenny were still here.

Several workers said they felt pressure to return into work. Emails shared by ProPublica with The Storm Lake Times document Tyson insisting that virus victims return to work before the prescribed waiting period. (Tyson insists otherwise.) Local health officials resisted, but a state official cleared it. The governor warned that unemployment benefits would be cut off to those who did not report for work in potentially unsafe conditions (contrary to state law).

Testing began in earnest here on May 15, when the TestIowa program was finally extended to Storm Lake. Other cities got testing weeks before. Tyson, which runs the turkey and pork operations, ran tests on all Storm Lake employees. Its contractor left town last week. TestIowa shuts down in Storm Lake on June 26.

Food processing workers have been tested once. What was true a week or two ago is not true today. We still don’t really know if the virus has peaked here, with 8% of the population testing positive. The hospital, operated by a health care corporation from Des Moines, will not report daily admissions. If there is no information, there is no problem.

As a direct result, my sleepy little town of about 15,000 people is among the hottest spots in the world for this deadly plague. And it’s because of a coordinated effort to restrict testing, suppress public information, and limit the ability for workers and communities to protect themselves. Local boards of health were told they did not have discretion to shut down meatpacking plants.

Of course, the workers are overwhelmingly brown and black, who are dying at rates at least five times higher than whites.

They are lesser beings, in Trump’s words from Tulsa:

“And these people want to get rid of ICE. They get rid of murderers. They get rid of rapists. They get rid of the worst scum on earth.”

That’s how Storm Lake is viewed by the President. His administration, the state government and, it would appear, the food processors are treating this town with disregard. Our neighbors are being ordered into work on insufficient and late testing with conditions that are potentially unsafe, or even deadly. We bear the burden. We mourn Kenny Jones. It’s time to change a system that is exploiting overwhelmed rural communities.

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