OTTUMWA — Iowa hit 500 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, the latest milestone in the pandemic.

The milestone came as two additional deaths were recorded in patients from Wapello County. Officials did not give ages for the most recent deaths. In all, six people from Wapello County have died from the virus.

More than 18,500 Iowans have been formally diagnosed with COVID-19 since it arrived in the state in early March. Nearly half of the fatalities have come from outbreaks at Iowa long-term care centers. Those outbreaks comprise only 8 percent of the state’s cases but account for 46 percent of the deaths.

Southeast Iowa had been fortunate in keeping the virus out of care facilities until the past couple weeks. But several area sites are now working to contain outbreaks. The biggest, at Crystal Heights Care Center in Oskaloosa, has sickened 65 residents and employees. Nine of those patients have died.

Recovery rates in the area vary considerably. As of Thursday morning, state officials count nine confirmed cases in Van Buren County, eight of which have recovered from the virus. But Mahaska County, where a bigger share of the cases have been recently diagnosed, has only a 20 percent recovery rate so far.

As of Thursday afternoon, the state’s count for Wapello County showed 545 cases and 235 recoveries, a 43 percent recovery rate. That’s disputed by local officials, though, who list more recoveries and fewer total cases. Their tally shows more than half of the patients have recovered.

The pandemic has had a disastrous effect on employment, and on Thursday the U.S. Department of Labor announced it was awarding more than $1.1 million to Indian Hills Community College as part of the Job Corps Scholars Program. It was one of 20 grants nationwide.

The labor department said the program is “a new national demonstration project aimed at providing at-risk youth with job skills instruction, educational opportunities and individualized employment counseling.

The effects on Iowa’s economy include severe blows for agriculture. Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday the pandemic’s effect could mean a loss of more than $2 billion for the state’s pork industry and $700 million for Iowa beef.

Ag-related industries have come under scrutiny during the pandemic as multiple Iowa meat packing plants have been sources for large outbreaks of the virus. Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, defended the state’s handling of information about COVID outbreaks at the state’s meat packing plants. She said state law allows confirmation of outbreaks “only when necessary to protect the health of the public.” State officials have defined that previously as a plant having at least 10 percent of the workforce testing positive.

On Wednesday, officials said they would not confirm outbreaks unless directly asked about it. That came in response to questions about a massive increase in positive tests around Storm Lake, which hosts a Tyson plant. Reisetter confirmed Thursday that the plant was the center of the outbreak, saying 555 of 2,517 employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

Matt Milner can be reached at mmilner@ottumwacourier.com and followed on Twitter @mwmilner

Matt Milner can be reached at mmilner@ottumwacourier.com and followed on Twitter @mwmilner

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Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

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