Tyson wokers to receive COVID vaccine this week

Workers at the Tyson meatpacking plant in Columbus Junction will be receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations this week.

With the new Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine receiving emergency use approval over the weekend, shipments of the vaccine began going out all over the country on Monday.

The state of Iowa made the decision to allocate the initial Johnson & Johnson vaccines to agriculture manufacturing and food distribution workers in the state.

Louisa County Public Health Director Roxanne Smith said Tuesday that a vendor is working with the facility to administer the vaccines.

“The doses have been allocated by our local (public health department) directly to the third party and have been received,” Smith said.

She added that all workers at the facility who wish to be vaccinated with be able to receive their vaccinations this week.

Attempts to reach a Tyson spokesperson at the Columbus Junction facility Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Tyson representatives told the Associated Press that many of its 13,000 workers in Iowa will have a chance to get vaccinated this week when the shots are delivered in Columbus Junction, Council Bluffs, Independence, Perry, Sioux City, Storm Lake and Waterloo.

“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,” Mark Lauritsen, who was meeting with workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo Monday about their chance to get the vaccine this week, told the Associated Press.

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 percent 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 percent 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 percent of the nation’s beef and pork workers and 33 percent of its poultry workers, estimates that at least 22,000 meatpacking workers have been infected or exposed, and 132 have died of COVID-19.

Two COVID-19 deaths were reported at the Columbus Junction facility last year. They were the first reported deaths at Iowa meatpacking facilities.

Because the state is prioritizing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for agriculture manufacturing employees, other counties will not receive any of the initial wave of doses.

Washington County Public Health Director Danielle Pettit-Majewski told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the state is sending the vaccines to the 13 counties with meatpacking facilities.

“The priority is for Tier 2 occupations including agricultural manufacturing and food distribution where they are unable to social distance,” Pettit-Majewski said. “Grocery store workers and restaurant workers are not eligible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.