Large meat operations in COVID hotspots
Highest case counts per 1,000 people in counties with meat plants
By Peter Fisher and David Osterberg

June 2, 2020
This backgrounder 2-page PDF

Text Box: T 
he COVID-19 outbreak in the United States might be easily viewed as an urban problem with the sheer numbers and high levels of infection from cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles. In Iowa things are different.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa was 19,688 as of 10 a.m. on Monday, June 1. [1] Iowa’s population of 3,170,000 leaves an overall case count of 6.2 citizens with COVID-19 per 1,000 population.

Not only that, but every county with a large pork plant (slaughter capacity of 8,000 or more) ranks in the top 11 in terms of case count, as does the county with the largest beef plant.

map of meat plants, covid hotspotsThe next block of six counties with more than seven cases per 1,000 includes counties that border meatpacking counties or that contain smaller meatpacking plants. Only one county, Taylor, does not fit that pattern.

The biggest county, Polk, with Des Moines, the state’s largest city, had eight cases per thousand. Black Hawk has received national attention for an outbreak at a Tyson plant and makes the above 10 list. However, large counties without packing plants have lower numbers. The second-largest county, Linn with Cedar Rapids, had 4.2 cases per thousand and the third-largest county, Scott, with Davenport, had 2.1 cases per thousand. The fourth-largest county, Johnson, with Iowa City had 4.1.

Table with map dataWhile COVID-19 cases may be centered in urban areas nationally, meat packing shows a strong connection in Iowa to the largest number of infections.

The obvious question: Why can’t the meat producers protect their workers and their communities?

And why didn’t the state take proactive measures as soon as the first outbreak occurred, at the Tyson Plant in Columbus Junction in early April, by making mandatory the national OSHA
guidelines for the safe operation of packing plants during the pandemic? Instead, for the next eight weeks, outbreaks have occurred at one packing plant after another.

[1] COVID-19 in Iowa. Iowa Department of Public Health dashboard., accessed 10 a.m., June 1, 2020.



Peter Fisher is research director at the Iowa Policy Project, where he has focused on fiscal and economic issues from the outset of the organization's founding in 2001. He is professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa.

David Osterberg is the lead environmental researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, which he co-founded in 2001. He is also a professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and analysis organization in Iowa City. Founded in 2001, IPP is funded by foundation grants and donations from individuals and organizations. Find IPP reports on the organization’s website,