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Coronavirus in Siouxland

Immigrant who worked Tyson's Dakota City plant for 37 years succumbs to COVID-19

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COVID-19 Viengxay Khuninh death

Suzanne Khuninh-Nguyen, center, is flanked by her sister, Katelynn Khuninh, left, and niece, Suhn Khuninh, as she holds a photo of their father and grandfather, Viengxay Khuninh, May 1, in the front yard of her parents' Dakota City home. Viengxay Khuninh, 69, died the previous week of COVID-19. He was a worker at Tyson Fresh Meats' Dakota City beef plant.

DAKOTA CITY -- Whenever Viengxay Khuninh and his wife, Hou, received a certificate that recognized their quality of work or celebrated one of their milestone anniversaries at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, the couple would frame and hang it on a white wall in their kitchen near the satellite TV where 69-year-old Viengxay Khuninh liked to watch Thai and Lao channels. 

"They were pretty proud of where they worked," their daughter Suzanne Khuninh-Nguyen, of Sioux City, said Thursday by phone. "They would get a certificate for every 5, 10 years that they had been there."

Khuninh was born in Laos. He immigrated from the Philippines to the United States with his wife in the early 1980s and built a life in Dakota City. He worked at the beef plant on the production line for 37 years chasing the American dream.

Last month, while an outbreak of the novel coronavirus silently raged at the plant, Khuninh developed a cough, then a fever. Less than a week later, Khuninh, the father of a son and three daughters, was dead. 

Viengxay Khuninh

Khuninh

"He wasn't afraid. He didn't think that was what was going to harm him," Khuninh-Nguyen said of her father, who loved to fish, hunt and spend time with his 13 grandchildren.

Health department officials have not publicly commented on the reason behind a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Woodbury and Dakota counties. As of Thursday, 669 workers had tested positive, according to a source familiar with the situation, who spoke to The Journal on the condition of anonymity. That number, which is expected to continue to grow as more test results come back, represents over 15 percent of the workforce at the 4,300-employee plant, and equals over 40 percent of the total novel coronavirus cases in the two counties.

Tyson, which has acknowledged that some workers have tested positive for the virus, but not how many, temporarily halted production at its largest beef plant on Friday. The facility will remain closed through Monday for "deep cleaning." Tyson also said last week it had started testing all of its Dakota City employees.

Khuninh, who died April 24, was the second of three Tyson workers to succumb to COVID-19.

The first was 64-year-old Raymundo Corral, of Sioux City. The third, a South Sioux City woman in her 50s or 60s, died Friday night. 

Corral continued to report for duty at the sprawling plant, despite displaying symptoms. He was never tested before he died at his home on April 18.

'WHY WON'T HE WAKE UP?'

Like Corral, Khuninh had underlying health conditions, including diabetes. But Khuninh-Nguyen said her father still did all of the yard work and woke up at 4 a.m. to report to the Tyson plant for his shift. Since neither her father nor her mother had any sick leave, Khuninh-Nguyen said they went to work when they were ill.

"They would never take a day off. Their goal was to work hard, buy a house and they had the four of us," she said of herself and her three siblings.

When her father couldn't work due to a doctor's appointment or surgery, she said her mother would put in double shifts to make up for his absence. When her father reached age 62, she said he considered retiring, but then decided he needed to keep working. 

"They were told a month or so ago that if they continued going to work every single day that they were scheduled, at the end of three months, they would get hazard pay, so him and my mom continued to go to work," Khuninh-Nguyen said.

Khuninh family photo

Viengxay Khuninh is shown in this undated family photo. Khuninh, 69, died last Friday of COVID-19. He was a worker at Tyson Fresh Meats' Dakota City beef plant.

Khuninh-Nguyen said her father developed a light cough on Sunday, April 19, but didn't immediately think anything of it. Two days later, she said her father was running a temperature above 100 degrees. He got up and went to work, but was sent home. When Khuninh-Nguyen talked to her father that Wednesday, the day he was tested for COVID-19, she said he "seemed fine."  

After her mother returned home from her shift around 1 a.m. Saturday, she found her husband in his recliner. She was unable to wake him up. Khuninh-Nguyen's older sister touched her father's hands, which were "ice cold." She felt him for a pulse, but couldn't detect one. 

"My mom was like, 'Why won't he wake up?'" Khuninh-Nguyen said. 

An ambulance crew arrived at the home and just shook their heads, according to Khuninh-Nguyen. She said her mother looked at her sister and asked, "Why aren't they doing anything to him?"

"My sister said, 'He's already gone.' My mom was just shocked," she said.

MITIGATION EFFORTS QUESTIONED

A 67-year-old Tyson worker, who was an acquaintance of Khuninh, tested positive for the virus on April 22.

A 35-year-old woman, who spoke to The Journal on the condition of anonymity to protect her family's safety and privacy, said Tyson didn't provide her 67-year-old father with protective gear until recently.

Although she said her father, who works in a non-production area, normally doesn't have many people working near him, she said he's in close proximity to other workers, who have been "elbow to elbow" on the production line, when he goes on break. She said workers are also within 1 to 2 feet of each other in the locker room. 

"COVID-19 has been around a good month and a half now. I want to say that these masks and these gloves were not provided to them until maybe after Smithfield closed," she said of a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork plant that was shut down on April 15 after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. 

"Some people have (masks) hanging on their ears and stuff, but they're not covering their faces," she said her father told her. 

The woman said the information her family receives about COVID-19 infection at the plant comes not from Tyson officials, but through "word of mouth" from other workers and their family members. 

"I don't want this covered up anymore. I want them to answer to all these families that are affected, to the families who have lost their loved ones," she said, voice quaking. "This is not right. Something has to be done. People can't go to work in fear anymore."

Khuninh-Nguyen said her family inadvertently learned that her late father had tested positive for COVID-19 from a news report. 

On Saturday, April 25, the Dakota County Health Department, in a statement released to the media, announced that an unidentified Dakota County resident over age 60 had died from COVID-19. That resident was Khuninh. 

"We're like, 'So then they know he's positive? Nobody told us,'" recalled Khuninh-Nguyen, who immediately contacted the director of a Sioux City funeral home. 

Khuninh-Nguyen said the funeral home was pushing to have her father cremated the next day, but she said her family wanted to wait until Monday. They hadn't even had a chance to process that Khuninh was gone. 

She said her family chose her father's urn through an exchange of text messages with the funeral home, a process she said was upsetting. After speaking with her siblings, Khuninh-Nguyen said they decided to have her father's body transferred to another Sioux City funeral home. When that funeral home went to pick up her father's body, Khuninh-Nguyen said the initial funeral home refused to release it. 

Khuninh-Nguyen said she, her mother, siblings and 21-year-old niece were able to see her father before he was cremated, but they weren't allowed to touch him.

"We got the closure we needed," said Khuninh-Nguyen, who said her family hopes to eventually hold a traditional Buddhist funeral service in memory of her father.

'IT'S TERRIFYING'

Khuninh-Nguyen said none of her other family members have tested positive for the virus, but her mother's results were still pending as of Thursday.

She said a good friend's father, who works at Tyson, and another woman she knows, who is relatively healthy and in her 30s, are both hospitalized on ventilators, while a friend of her father's, who is currently ill, continues to work at the plant. 

"He was like, 'I've got bills to pay. I've gotta go to work.' He didn't get his test results back yet, but he is not looking good," Khuninh-Nguyen said. 

The 35-year-old woman said her father began having symptoms on April 17, which he attributed to seasonal allergies or a cold coming on. Two days later, on Sunday, the woman said her mother called her and asked if she could pick up some cold medicine for her father. He wasn't feeling well and was coughing. After working in the garden that day, the woman said her own allergies were "going haywire" and her body began aching. 

The following Monday morning, the woman's father reported to work, aware that he had a slight fever. He immediately went to the nurses' station for a temperature check. She said the nurse told him that he needed to go see his doctor, but never told him what his temperature was. She said her father put in a vacation request and left the plant. He was tested for COVID-19 at a MercyOne urgent care clinic and learned he had the virus that Wednesday.

"My body aches were coming on stronger and I started running a fever Monday evening, that's when I knew I had to go get checked, as well," said the woman, who tested negative for the virus that Thursday, but was told by her doctor that he was certain she had it. "He said the testing was not 100 percent accurate."

The woman, who is self-isolating at home, said her father has been in bed with extreme fatigue and a fever and is barely eating. He was supposed to return to work next week, but she said she is urging him to retire. She said her brother, who began displaying symptoms a day after her father did, has had a fever and a bad cough. 

"I have experienced the shortness of breath. It's terrifying. It's the most physically and mentally challenging thing I've ever gone through," she said. "My mom's already told me if she were to get it, she probably won't live through it -- that's the fear with my dad and that's the fear with her."

Last Monday, Khuninh-Nguyen accompanied her mother to the plant to pick up her father's last check and notify the human resources department that her mother was taking a month-long leave of absence.

Khuninh-Nguyen said the parking lot, which is usually brimming with vehicles, was only a quarter full. They stood in a line of workers reporting for the second shift, eventually making their way up to a woman, who sprayed their hands with disinfectant. They were given masks, which they were told to put on before entering the building, but their temperatures were never taken. 

Tyson has noted that it was one of the first food companies to start taking worker temperatures on a daily basis. 

"(My mom) said, 'When we get up there, they're going to check our temperature,'" Khuninh-Nguyen recalled. "I walked through the whole thing with my mom and there was no one taking temperatures. That is a fact."

Before Tyson announced it would pause production, the 35-year-old woman questioned why the Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, had shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak and the Dakota City plant had not, or at least gone to half production.

She said later that she doesn't think the four-day production pause is sufficient.

"They need to look out for their workers. These people are not indispensable," she said. "They're going to work to bust their butts off. And people like my dad, who have been there for years on end, they're just treating them like pawns." 

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