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Tyson Foods to offer COVID-19 vaccine to 13,000 Iowa employees this week

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COVID-19 Dakota City Tyson plant reopens (copy)

A guard opens a gate as a vehicle enters the truck entrance May 7, 2020, at Tyson Fresh Meats' flagship beef processing plant in Dakota City. The plant was closed temporarily in the spring due to a wave of COVID-19 infections among its employees. 

SIOUX CITY -- Tyson Foods officials expect many of the company's 13,000 Iowa employees to be vaccinated during vaccination events later this week at or near company facilities that include those in Sioux City and Storm Lake, and Dakota City, Nebraska. 

Tyson said in a statement that the vaccines are being provided in conjunction with local health departments across the state, where food processing workers are among the priority group now eligible for vaccination.

A company spokeswoman clarified that Tyson employees who live in Iowa, but work across state lines, are eligible. That would include thousands of Iowans who work at the Tyson plant in neighboring Dakota City, Nebraska. A vast majority of the plant's over 4,500 workers are from Iowa. 

Vaccine availability for Nebraska residents who work at Tyson plants is not confirmed at the time, although the company is working with the state and local health departments, according to the spokeswoman.

In Iowa and Nebraska, front-line meatpacking workers fall into Tier 2 of the 1B priority group.

"We've been working with Matrix Medical, Hy-Vee and health department officials across Iowa to prepare for this moment and we're ready," Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods, said in the statement. "We're pleased to offer our team members convenient access to the vaccine, and we appreciate the state of Iowa recognizing the essential role they play in feeding the world."

A COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic by the Siouxland District Health Department is held at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Officials expected to give 1,200 vaccinations Wednesday during the first of several such clinics planned.

Over 3,000 workers are employed at Tyson's two plants in Storm Lake. In Sioux City, Tyson operates a cold storage facility. 

Meatpacking workers across the country have started receiving coronavirus vaccines and thousands more will have a chance to get their shots this week, offering some peace of mind in an industry that was ravaged by COVID-19 a year ago.

"There's a level of relief to know they are finally getting the vaccination, and maybe we can start taking steps back to normal -- not just at the work site but just in their life in general," said Mark Lauritsen, who was meeting with workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, Monday about their chance to get the vaccine this week.

Lauritsen, who is the United Food and Commercial Workers union's vice president of food processing and meatpacking, said that interest in the vaccine is high among workers after the industry took such a heavy toll from the virus. He expects — based on a union survey and the experience at the first couple plants where vaccines were offered — that roughly 70% of workers who get the chance to be vaccinated will get a shot.

Last spring, major outbreaks at a number of meatpacking plants — where workers often stand should-to-shoulder on production lines — forced them to close temporarily because of the number of illnesses and to install additional safety measures. Across the industry, production fell as low at 60% of capacity in April at the height of the plant closures before rebounding to near normal levels over the summer.

The UFCW union, which represents roughly 80% of the nation’s beef and pork workers and 33% of its poultry workers, estimates that at least 22,000 meatpacking workers have been infected or exposed, and 132 have died of COVID-19.

Siouxland District Health Department announces March 8 COVID-19 vaccination clinic

In preparation for vaccinations, Tyson said in the statement that is has been providing expert resources and education about the vaccine to its employees in multiple languages giving them access to a hotline to ask questions. In addition to offering free, on-site vaccinations, the company also recently announced that it is compensating workers for up to four hours of regular pay if they are vaccinated outside of their normal shift or through an external source.

Illinois was one of the first places to offer the vaccines to entire plants of workers last month. JBS and Tyson said workers at two of their plants in that state are due to receive their second required shots of the vaccine soon.

The Dakota City plant, just across the Nebraska border from Sioux City, shut down in early May after hundreds of its 4,500 workers tested positive for the virus. Tyson temporarily idled several other plants, including pork facilities in Storm Lake, Columbus Junction, and Perry, Iowa, and Madison, Nebraska, after hundreds of workers were infected.

In late July, the meatpacker launched weekly coronavirus testing of workers across all of its 140 facilities.

Tyson Foods has invested more than $540 million into providing its U.S. facilities with new safety and protective health measures during the pandemic.

These measures have included temperature scanners, workplace dividers, additional team member pay and benefits, an expanded health services staff and on-site testing.

Josh Funk of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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