DAKOTA CITY -- A Sioux City woman whose common-law husband died of COVID-19 after working at Tyson Fresh Meats’ Dakota City plant says she believes the company didn't react quickly enough to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Raymundo Corral, 64, a front line worker at the beef plant, died Saturday afternoon at his Sioux City home, his wife Anna Bell told the Journal Tuesday. Bell said a medical examiner told her Tuesday that Corral had tested positive for COVID-19.
"We’re deeply saddened by the loss of a team member from our Dakota City plant, and are keeping the family in our thoughts and prayers," Tyson said in a statement Tuesday night.
Local health officials on Tuesday announced Woodbury County's first death from the virus, but did not identify the individual, other than to say it was a male between ages 61 and 80.
Bell said her husband started feeling ill about two weeks ago, but he continued to report to duty at the sprawling plant, which employs about 4,300. Despite reporting symptoms of the virus, he was never tested before he died, she said.
In late February or early March, Tyson gave employees a letter to show to law enforcement if they were stopped on their way to or from work to prove they were classified as essential employees, she said.
Although workers at the plant eventually received daily wellness checks, including daily temperature screenings and masks and other protective equipment, Bell believes the company should have made workplace modifications sooner. The temperature checks started in late March or early April, she said.
"I would say (to Tyson officials) it would have been great if you would have treated your employees like human beings instead of just expendable assets," Bell said.
Bell, 57, also contracted the virus and was hospitalized Saturday at MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center, shortly after her husband was pronounced dead. She was released from the Sioux City hospital on Tuesday afternoon.
Their daughter, Sarah Corral, 20, also of Sioux City, remains hospitalized at UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's in Sioux City. Sarah Corral had been placed on a ventilator, but is now breathing on her own. She also tested positive for COVID-19.
Each member of the family had underlying medical conditions, which health experts say increases the risk of contracting COVID-19. Ray Corral had high blood pressure and was diabetic. Bell is a cancer survivor who also suffers from an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure. Their daughter has diabetes.
“We both had underlying conditions, We were both older. I knew that we were sitting ducks,” she said.
Spike in cases
The first COVID-19-related death in metro Sioux City comes amid a major surge in positive cases. In Dakota County, home to the Tyson plant, health officials authorities reported 27 new cases Tuesday, raising the total to 96. Ten days ago, the Northeast Nebraska county of about 20,000 people had zero confirmed cases.
Across the Missouri River, Woodbury County reported 18 and 34 new positive tests the last two days, respectively, raising its total to 93.
Local health officials in both counties have repeatedly refused to say whether the recent escalation is linked in any way to the Tyson plant, which is easily the metro's largest employer. Across the tri-state region, several meat plants have emerged as hot spots for the virus.
As of Friday, 23 workers at the Dakota City plant had tested positive for COVID-19, according to an official familiar with the situation who spoke to the Journal on the condition of anonymity. Tyson has acknowledged that some workers have tested positive, but has repeatedly refused to disclose a number.
In an interview with the Journal Monday, Tyson Fresh Meats group president Steve Stouffer denied the flagship beef plant was a main source of exposure.
"People are led to believe our plant is a vector of community spread, but that is not the case," Stouffer said in the interview. "There is no way of knowing where our community members are getting this."
Bell said the only place her family could have been exposed to the virus was through her husband’s workplace.
“I am not buying the company line that they weren’t a hot spot," Bell said. "They were offering a bonus of $500 if you didn’t miss a shift. People wanted that $500.
"And considering the majority of the workers there are immigrants, who may not understand English as well as they could, my husband had me to tell him what to do. He knew that I was looking out for him,” Bell continued.
In late March, Tyson announced about $60 million in bonuses to 116,000 front line workers and truckers as a "thank you" for their efforts during the pandemic. Eligible workers will receive a $500 bonus, payable during the first week of July.
Bell said her husband hadn't missed a day of work until early last week.
“He did take this last Monday (April 13) off because he hadn’t been feeling well since that Sunday. He was kind of on the perky side. I wouldn’t have thought it was COVID-19. We went and paid a few bills and then he went to work Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He came home Friday about 10:30 a.m. He usually doesn’t get home until around 3:30 or 4 p.m. I heard him come in and I knew something was wrong,” Bell said.
Corral was required to see a nurse at the plant before leaving Friday, Bell said. He had a temperature but it was within the acceptable range for him to be at work, she said.
“When he got home he was shaking, coughing a lot. His hands were shaking a lot when he tried to eat something,” she said.
He went back to sleep. She called a COVID-19 hotline, where she was advised to call a doctor. But she decided to wait.
“I didn’t realize he was that bad,” she said.
He slept most of the day Friday in between doses of Tylenol.
Corral woke up Saturday morning seeming to be OK.
“He was hungry and I made him some food. He snores so it was hard to tell if he was having trouble breathing or just snoring. It was a little after 2 p.m. and it was time for me to give him his acetaminophen.”
Corral begged off, saying he would take it later.
Bell went into the other room and laid down for a nap.
About 6:30 p.m. she woke up and went to check on Corral.
“He was on his back and there was foam on his lips,” she said. “I went over and he was cold and he was unresponsive. I called 911.”
The EMTs arrived a short time later.
“There was nothing they could do,” Bell said.
“I started to go into shock and they took me into the ER and I was tested and I got the (COVID-19) results that same night.”
Bell said one of Corral's co-workers called him on Friday after he went home sick reporting that 25 Tyson plant employees had left their shift early that day.
She has spoken with officials at the Dakota City plant since Ray’s death. The family was referred to the company chaplain and was told to let officials know if they could help in any way.
In early April, Tyson announced it had started taking temperatures of workers at all locations before they enter company facilities. At some locations, including Dakota City, infrared temperature scanners were deployed.
Tyson said it also had stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of the facilities, especially in employee break rooms, locker rooms and other areas, to protect workers.
Following federal and state guidelines, Tyson also said it was implementing additional ways to promote more social distancing at the plants. The strategies include erecting dividers between work stations and increasing the space between workers on the production floor.
Tyson also called on federal officials to deliver more personal protective equipment for its workers.
Bell said her husband dismissed her warnings about the need for social distancing at work, saying it was nearly impossible to practice in a crowded locker room when one shift was ending their day and another was coming on line.