Lexington community concerned amid COVID outbreak in Dawson County

Dawson County has seen an increase of 129 positive cases of COVID-19 over the last two days, and now has the most cases per 10,000 residents of any county in Nebraska. (Credit: Patrick Johnstone/KNOP-TV)
Dawson County has seen an increase of 129 positive cases of COVID-19 over the last two days, and now has the most cases per 10,000 residents of any county in Nebraska. (Credit: Patrick Johnstone/KNOP-TV)(KNOP)
Published: Apr. 20, 2020 at 11:01 PM CDT
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In the last two days, Two Rivers Public Health District has reported an increase of 129 positive COVID-19 cases in Dawson County. Last week, the Nebraska National Guard was in Lexington conducting tests on emergency personnel and workers at the Tyson Meat Packing Plant. In total, 238 tests were conducted over two days, and approximately 50 percent of those tests came back positive.

Members of the Lexington community are concerned about the disclosure and transparency shown by Tyson Foods about the situation in the city.

"We really want Tyson to be able to speak up on behalf of their workers and say how many workers they currently have that are positive. We know there are positive cases, they're just not disclosing," said Gladys Godinez, a Community Organizer with the Center for Rural Affiars, and the daughter of retired plant workers.

While Tyson has implemented conditions to keep their workers safe, they were only implemented recently, and workers want more protections in place.

"My hope is that Tyson foods takes care of our community," Godinez said. "One, offer paid sick leave if they are sick, two provide PPE. A lot of the departments are saying that they're running low on PPE, and that scares us dearly because we need PPE for them to be able to work in such close quarters."

"Until this week there weren't dividers between meat packing plant workers who are literally working shoulder to shoulder," said Rose Godinez, Gladys' sister, and a civil rights attorney with ACLU Nebraska.

Both Gladys and Rose Godinez have been in contact with workers at the Tyson plant, and say they want paid sick leave.

"If Tyson is not providing paid sick leave for our community members, they're going to be scared, and they're going to continue to go back to work," Gladys Godinez said. "They need to know that they're also beloved community members; parents, children, and also are worthy of being protected."

"Some people just can't afford not to go to work, and if you don't offer that option, you'll just see them continuing to go to work, even though that puts them and their family members at risk," Rose Godinez said.

One Lexington community member who understands first-hand how scary the situation at the Tyson plant is, is Maday Corvelo, whose mother works at the plant. Corvelo's mother is 60 years old, and has an underlying medical condition.

"She's had a problem with high blood pressure in the past. So, my concern is her having to go to work, not being able to have the option to stay at home," Corvelo said. "She wants to know if she's safe at work. Every day she tells me, 'I'm afraid I'm going to get sick, and I'm not going to be able to fight this, because of my existing medical conditions'"

Corvelo is concerned about her mother contracting the virus two-fold; because of her mother's age and high blood pressure, and because she has a two-month-old baby at home who was born prematurely.

If the virus spreads, there is a chance the plant will have to close, which has been the case with plants in Iowa, Minnesota, and other states in the country. If the Lexington plant does close, it could devastate the Lexington community and economy.

"The heart of the town is the meat packing plant, and without any paid leave, without any sort of resources for the workers, we will truly see a spike in unemployment, and a spike in homelessness," Rose Godinez said. "Unfortunately, in Lexington we have a large homeless population, and a large population that is low income, and completely dependent on Tyson's employment and salary."

The minority population of Lexington is at a large risk, as they make up a significant portion of workers at the plant.

"A lot of our people are working, a lot of Latinos, immigrant, refugee, frontline workers. I mean, we're talking essential workers, they're putting their lives at risk for us," Gladys Godinez said.

"A large portion of the people working in meatpacking plants are black and brown, and jurisdictions reporting across the country continue to show that black and brown people are being particularly affected by COVID-19, and are the most at risk. So, we need to look at this not only from a worker's rights lens, but also racial justice lens," Rose Godinez said.

Gladys and Rose Godinez do not want the plant to close, and say workers do not want the plant to close, but action needs to be taken in order to prevent the situation from worsening.

"We have a lot of employees that are saying they want to work, we have a lot of employees asking for two to three weeks off, just to be able to contain the outbreak that's currently happening," Gladys Godinez said. "We want to make sure they know that they're cared for and that the community is here for them."

Tyson is the biggest employer in Dawson County, and in a statement to KNOP-TV, said:

"If there is a confirmed case at one of our locations, as part of our protocol and in collaboration with health officials, we notify anyone who has been in close contact with the person and instruct them to go home and self-quarantine. We also inform team members who have not been exposed and provide information to our supervisors so they can help answer questions.

Our workplace safety efforts are significant and strictly enforced at all locations. We’re implementing social distancing in our plants based on CDC and industry guidance, such as increasing the distance between workers on the production floor, installing workstation dividers and barriers in our breakrooms. We’ve been evaluating and implementing ways to promote more social distancing in our plants."

Tyson has also implemented changes in the way of staggering shift times to reduce worker interactions, taking workers' temperatures before shifts, and requiring workers to wear masks. The company also said since the situation changes rapidly, it will not release specific numbers for confirmed cases.

Twin Rivers Public Health Department Health Director Jeremy Eschilman said the Health Department does not release case information at a level lower than county level, to retain anonymity, unless there is a specific public health reason for doing so.

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