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Grim gift: 500 body bags added to Iowa’s coronavirus stockpile

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s executive branch is getting a grim gift from a company that has long made garments for meatpacking workers: a free supply of 500 body bags.

Dickson Industries is donating the body bags as the state prepares for a worst-case scenario in which the coronavirus or another health emergency would overwhelm hospitals and medical examiners.

The Des Moines-based company makes garments and products for the food processing, medical and other industries, including coats and insulated jackets for meatpacking workers.

Like the 500 ventilators the state is purchasing, the body bags will be kept in a state stockpile “to support possible medical surge operations within the state,” Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman John Benson said. In that event, state officials would move resources to locations with high volumes of patients.

More than 715 Iowa residents have died of the coronavirus since late March, although deaths have slowed in recent weeks, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. Confirmed cases are on the rise, particularly in college towns where young people have spread the COVID-19 virus in bars since their reopening.

The state initially put out a solicitation to companies seeking quotes to purchase body bags that could be delivered in April and May, documents obtained under the open records law show. That process ended when Dickson agreed to donate them, said Department of Administrative Services spokeswoman Tami Wiencek.

The company has delivered 94 of the black, adult-size body bags to date and the state expects to receive the rest shortly, Benson said.

In April, the state awarded Dickson Industries a $9.2 million contract to purchase 1 million non-surgical gowns to be worn by health care workers and patients to protect against the coronavirus. That is one of the largest contracts the state has awarded as it works to rebuild its depleted stockpile of personal protective equipment.

A Dickson executive, Wells Dickson, hasn’t returned phone calls seeking comment.

The coronavirus has upended Iowa’s meatpacking industry — a sector that Dickson and its predecessor companies have helped supply since the 1940s.

The virus started spreading through crowded meatpacking plants in March and April, infecting thousands of workers across the state, prompting companies to add safety measures and slowing production.

Unlike some other states, the Iowa Department of Public Health has not released data showing how many meatpacking workers have died after getting the virus. In May, a federal study that included data on meatpacking worker deaths from 18 states said the information from Iowa was “not available.”

Department spokeswoman Amy McCoy said then that the agency “did have the information collected in the manner they requested it” but didn’t elaborate or provide it to AP. Last month, the department said it would cost more than $1,600 to retrieve the data and hasn’t responded to follow-up questions.

Nationwide, at least 113 meatpacking workers have died, according to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. In Iowa, deaths have been confirmed among employees at several plants, including Waterloo,Sioux City and Storm Lake.

The AP learned about Dickson’s gift after obtaining a May 1 email under the open records law from a state purchasing official with the subject line, “500 side zipped body bags.” The official asked a vendor for a quote with the time they could be delivered to Des Moines.

The state has not completed a mandatory disclosure report for the gift with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, but is working on it, Benson said. A rarely enforced law requires departments to report all gifts worth $50 or more within 20 days of their receipt.

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