DAKOTA CITY, Neb. — Whenever Viengxay Khuninh and his wife, Hou, received a certificate that recognized their quality of work or celebrated one of their anniversaries at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, the couple would frame it and hang it on a wall in their kitchen near the satellite TV where he liked to watch Thai and Lao channels.
“They were pretty proud of where they worked,” their daughter Suzanne Khuninh-Nguyen of Sioux City, Iowa, said Thursday by phone. “They would get a certificate for every five, 10 years that they had been there.”
Viengxay, 69, was born in Laos. He emigrated from the Philippines to the United States with his wife in the early 1980s and built a life in Dakota City. He worked on the production line at the beef plant for 37 years.
Last month, while an outbreak of the coronavirus silently raged at the plant, he developed a cough, then a fever. Less than a week later, Khuninh, the father of a son and three daughters, was dead.
“He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t think that was what was going to harm him,” Khuninh-Nguyen said of her father, who loved to fish, hunt and spend time with his 13 grandchildren.
Health department officials have not publicly commented on the reason behind a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Woodbury County, Iowa, and Dakota County.
Khuninh, who died April 24, was the second of three Tyson workers to succumb to COVID-19.
The first was 64-year-old Raymundo Corral of Sioux City. The third, a South Sioux City woman in her 50s or 60s, died Friday night.
Corral continued to report for duty at the sprawling plant, despite displaying symptoms. He died at his home April 18.
Like Corral, Khuninh had underlying health conditions, including diabetes. But Khuninh-Nguyen said her father still woke up at 4 a.m. to report to the Tyson plant for his shift. Because neither her father nor her mother had any sick leave, Khuninh-Nguyen said they went to work when they were ill.
“They would never take a day off. Their goal was to work hard, buy a house and they had the four of us,” she said of herself and siblings.
When her father couldn’t work due to a doctor’s appointment or surgery, she said her mother would put in double shifts to make up for his absence. When he reached age 62, she said, he considered retiring but decided to keep working.
“They were told a month or so ago that if they continued going to work every single day that they were scheduled, at the end of three months, they would get hazard pay, so him and my mom continued to go to work,” Khuninh-Nguyen said.
Khuninh-Nguyen said her father developed a light cough April 19. Two days later, she said her father was running a temperature above 100 degrees. He went to work but was sent home.
After her mother returned home from her shift about 1 a.m. Saturday, she found her husband in his recliner. She was unable to wake him up. Khuninh-Nguyen’s older sister touched her father’s hands, which were “ice cold.” She felt him for a pulse but couldn’t detect one.
“My mom was like, ‘Why won’t he wake up?’ ” Khuninh-Nguyen said.
An ambulance crew arrived at the home and just shook their heads, said Khuninh-Nguyen. She said her mother looked at her sister and asked, “Why aren’t they doing anything to him?”
“My sister said, ‘He’s already gone.’ My mom was just shocked,” she said.
Khuninh-Nguyen said her family inadvertently learned that her late father had tested positive for COVID-19 from a news report.
On April 25, the Dakota County Health Department, in a statement, announced that an unidentified Dakota County resident over age 60 had died from COVID-19. That resident was Khuninh.
“We’re like, ‘So then they know he’s positive? Nobody told us,’ ” Khuninh-Nguyen said.
Khuninh-Nguyen said she, her mother, siblings and 21-year-old niece were able to see her father before he was cremated.
“We got the closure we needed,” said Khuninh-Nguyen, who said her family hopes to eventually hold a traditional Buddhist funeral service in memory of her father.