Dakota County, across the river from Sioux City, Iowa, and on the South Dakota border, has only about 20,000 people.
But it also has a massive Tyson Foods beef plant in Dakota City where 4,000-plus people work, a plant that locals suspect is the center of a major coronavirus outbreak there.
Dakota County reported 608 coronavirus cases as of Monday, and one death over the weekend, eclipsing the 489 known coronavirus cases in Douglas County, which is home to Omaha and about 571,000 people. Dakota County’s per capita rate of coronavirus cases is 40 times higher than Douglas County’s.
Dakota County now has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in Nebraska, second only to Hall County, where the Grand Island area is battling its own wave of infections. It joins a number of other coronavirus hot spots in Nebraska and across the country, many of which are heavily connected to the food processing or production industries.
“There’s a lot of information that we don’t have ... but everybody here feels it’s coming from the meatpacking houses,” said South Sioux City Mayor Rod Koch. “We’re not very happy about it. We wish there could have been testing a lot earlier than what was done, and we want more transparency about cases coming out of those places.”
The hits kept coming Monday for Nebraska’s meatpacking plants, with more workers testing positive in Fremont and Crete, too, prompting one plant to temporarily halt its operations.
The Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete appears to be the first major meatpacker in Nebraska to close because of the coronavirus.
Pat Lopez, the interim Lincoln-Lancaster County health director, said Monday afternoon that the plant is closing. Crete Mayor Dave Bauer said the plant, which employs about 2,000 people, will close Wednesday.
It’s “too bad that it had to come to this, but I do applaud them for what they are doing to keep the employees safe and to be able to get on top of it before it gets worse,” he said.
Smithfield Foods declined to directly address reports that the plant will close.
“The company will make an announcement if there are material changes to its operations,” a spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods said Monday afternoon.
Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents workers at the Crete plant, said it was his understanding that after the Nebraska National Guard ramped up testing in Crete last week, a large number of tests for plant workers came back positive this weekend.
“That had to have prompted their decision,” he said.
A total of 47 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been confirmed among Smithfield workers, according to Public Health Solutions, the local public health department that includes the Crete area.
Dr. Josue Gutierrez, whose clinic, Saline Medical Specialties, treats many of the employees and their families, said the closure was welcome.
What’s happening in Saline County is happening in other meatpacking communities, he said.
“If we’re not doing things quickly enough, we can get to this point,” he said. “It’s a good idea to stop production.”
Also important, he said, is for people to commit to social distancing, wearing face masks and staying home in the days ahead.
“Quite honestly, as a community, we’re in this together,” he said.
Smithfield Foods has closed plants in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri because of the virus.
Lincoln Premium Poultry, which runs the Costco chicken plant in Fremont, reported an additional nine coronavirus cases Monday. A total of 15 workers there have tested positive, while 26 have tested negative, a company spokeswoman said.
In Dakota County, in northeast Nebraska, cases have exploded in a span of just two weeks — the county health agency didn’t report its first case until April 12.
What some call the tri-state area — the region that includes Sioux City, Iowa, North Sioux City, South Dakota, and South Sioux City, Nebraska — is home to more than 150,000 people and several large food processing and meatpacking plants.
That includes the Dakota City Tyson Fresh Meats plant, which employs an estimated 4,300 people, and the Seaboard Triumph Foods pork plant in Sioux City. It’s not uncommon for workers, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, to live in one community and work in another, or to hop around to different plants.
Working from home is not an option at these facilities, and the demands of the fast-moving production line make social distancing difficult, too. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers in shifts slaughter animals and slice and package meat standing nearly elbow-to-elbow, work that was often grueling and dangerous even before the pandemic.
To be sure, people can catch the coronavirus from friends or family or out in public, not just their workplace. Coronavirus clusters are occurring at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, too. Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the outbreaks tied to Nebraska meatpacking facilities aren’t solely the responsibility of the plants but are also a “community issue.”
Still, it’s unknown how many cases are tied to the Tyson plant in Dakota City. The Sioux City Journal reported earlier this month that a 64-year-old Sioux City man who worked there died after contracting the virus.
A Tyson Fresh Meats executive previously confirmed cases at the Dakota City plant in an interview with a local TV station, but company representatives have repeatedly said they will not divulge the number of cases at individual plants to protect workers’ privacy.
Dakota County Health Director Natasha Ritchison has declined to comment on how many people who work at the plant have tested positive or on how many cases have been reported in each Dakota County town or city.
A Tyson spokeswoman said its facilities have put a number of safety measures in place, including monitoring workers for fever, relaxing attendance policies so workers stay home when they’re sick and providing masks that must be worn.
“We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people across the country,” spokeswoman Liz Croston said.
Koch, the South Sioux City mayor, said plant managers seem to be addressing the situation now, but he worries that it’s too little, too late.
“I’ve heard rumors people are afraid to go to work. I’m hearing attendance is way down,” he said. “But the genie’s out of the bottle. This stuff should have been done earlier. This thing is running rampant.”
He understands the arguments about keeping packing plants open to avoid disruption to the supply chain that includes the farmers and ranchers who raise cattle, hogs and poultry and the customers looking for meat at their local grocery store.
“I know everybody’s ringing the bell of ‘the food chain, the food chain,’ but at the same time, where does people’s health come in?” he said. “I don’t think any of us in this country are going to starve.”
Koch and the mayors of Sioux City, North Sioux City, Dakota City and Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, released a joint statement Monday asking local and state health departments to release more data on the spiking cases in Dakota County, Woodbury County, Iowa, and Union County, South Dakota.
“Further, we are asking all businesses in our various communities to take responsibility for any outbreak or spread of COVID-19 in their facilities,” they wrote. “This includes providing accurate information to employees and the public about any confirmed cases in their facilities and the steps they are taking to protect their employees. ... If these steps cannot be taken, we would ask the business to close until such time a response plan is in place.”
They also cautioned Ricketts, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem against lifting restrictions in their respective states too soon.
Testing in Dakota County is becoming more widespread, with people heading to the volunteer fire station in Dakota City to get their noses swabbed.
“They’re testing a lot of people, so hopefully that will help, one, identify everybody, and two, help us get our hands around this thing,” said Dakota City Mayor Jerry Yacevich, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician who’s been putting on gloves, a gown and mask to respond to 911 calls.
He said area hospitals don’t seem to be stressed or overtaxed with COVID-19 patients.
But people in his small city of about 2,000 seem to have been a little slower to take the virus seriously, he said. He doesn’t always see people wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart when grocery shopping or getting gas, though more seem to be following those guidelines in recent days after cases surged.
“People may have thought ‘Shoot, it’s not going to get here,’ and kaboom!” he said. “Guess what? It’s real and it’s here.”
World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.