IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — In the days before his death, an Iowa meatpacking worker twice warned that the coronavirus was spreading through his plant because of its crowded spaces and lack of personal protective equipment, his nephew said.
Husen Jagir, 56, died May 1, about a week after he fell ill following a shift at the Seaboard Triumph Foods plant in Sioux City.
The plant, which is one of the nation’s largest pork processing facilities, announced this week that 59 of its workers had tested positive for COVID-19. But testing of its 2,400 workers appears to have been limited, as the company said only 108 other workers tested negative.
The company acknowledged Jagir’s death earlier this month, without identifying him by name.
Jagir told his nephew, Shila Dide, 30, twice in April that conditions at the bustling plant were helping spread the highly contagious disease. Jagir complained that hundreds of people would gather in the cafeteria without masks or face shields, Dide said.
“My uncle told me, ‘Hey, this place is not safe. This virus is everywhere’,” said Dide, of Carroll. “He talked to me twice and said the same thing. Then, after a few days, he got sick.”
Workplace safety regulators and meat processors have been faulted by labor activists for not doing enough to protect employees during the pandemic's early stages.
Seaboard Triumph Foods said Friday that it expanded break areas and installed physical dividers on cafeteria tables beginning April 6. On April 13, the plant supplied face masks to employees and made facial coverings mandatory inside the plant four days later. Production has been slowed to allow for social distancing on the line.
The company said it was was saddened by Jagir's death and that it has been in touch with his family to offer support.
“The health of our employees is paramount, and we implemented significant precautions to ensure the well-being of our employees while still producing much-needed pork for consumers,” a company statement said.
The plant has no plans to offer mass testing for employees but said they should stay home if sick and seek tests on their own.
Sioux City and surrounding Woodbury County is one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots, and its hospitals have reported a surge in patients. The county of 103,000 people has more than 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 15 deaths.
Local officials have blamed much of the outbreak on the nearby Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, where more than 300 workers who live in Iowa tested positive. While acknowledging the serious situation, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds nonetheless allowed restaurants, barbershops, salons and gyms to reopen Friday in Woodbury County.
Jagir was a native of Eritrea in Africa and fled across the border to Sudan in his 20s to get away from war and seek a better life, Dide said. He later fled genocide in Sudan and lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia in the 2000s.
Jagir came to the U.S. in 2010 as a refugee, first to Missouri and then to Iowa after a friend told him the state has “got a lot of money and opportunity,” Dide said. For years, he worked at the now-shuttered Tyson plant in Denison, Iowa, and later worked at the Smithfield Foods pork plant there.
Dide said his uncle quit Smithfield after clashing with a supervisor and started working months ago at Triumph Seaboard Foods, which opened in 2017 and can process 20,000 hogs per day.
Dide said he told his uncle to quit last month after hearing his alarm about the coronavirus, but Jagir needed money to pay rent. Dide told him to “just keep praying to God that you will be protected.”
After leaving work April 23, Jagir reported that he was cold, shaky and nauseous, Dide said. His condition worsened as he didn’t eat over the next few days. Jagir eventually called 911 and was taken to a hospital but sent home that day, Dide said.
Jagir was readmitted days later when he had trouble breathing and died within 48 hours. Dide said that he was unable to reach Jagir in his final days after his uncle's cellphone battery died.
“I was very saddened,” Dide said. “I was like ‘wow’.”
Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak