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Saline, Moniteau Counties Lead State In Cases Per 100,000 Amid Outbreaks At Plants

Zhihan Huang
Missouri Business Alert

As the rate of new COVID-19 cases in a few urban areas across Missouri slows, cases in some rural counties are spiking. With at least 102 confirmed cases of COVID-19 Wednesday morning, Saline County has a rate of more than 445 cases per 100,000 residents — the highest in the state. That figure is almost double the rate in St. Louis County, which has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state with 2,417. Saline County has two major meat processing plants in Marshall, owned by Cargill and ConAgra Brands - both of which say employees have tested positive. ConAgra has temporarily suspended production at its plant until April 27, while the Cargill facility is still operating. 

The second highest rate per 100,000 as of Tuesday evening was Moniteau County, which has 63 cases, translating to more than 390 cases per 100,000. Moniteau County Health Center environmental specialist Darrell Hendrickson says the vast majority of its cases are linked directly or indirectly to Burger's Smokehouse, a meat processing plant in the county. Burger's announced Wednesday it was suspending all operations until April 30 after 21 employees tested positive for COVID-19. The California plant employs some 300 people overall. Cargill also operates a plant in the county, but says none of its workers have tested positive for the virus. 

A worker at the Cargill plant in Marshall who spoke on condition of anonymity said while some protections have been implemented for workers, cleaning staff — who are contracted separately — haven't been given the same protections or sick leave. At least one worker from the ConAgra plant there has been hospitalized, according to a family member, who said on Monday he was on a ventilator at University Hospital in Columbia. MU Health confirmed he was in serious condition on Wednesday, and said it had three patients in its intensive care unit, but declined to say how many were from Marshall.

The sudden spike in cases in the two counties are straining their respective public health entities. The Saline County Health Department has 11 full time employees, and says its numbers are increasing too quickly to definitively say how many of its cases can be traced back to the Cargill and ConAgra plants. The Moniteau County Health Center has seven people on staff, and recently brought on a volunteer from a local school district. 

In a press briefing Monday, Governor Mike Parson said the state was actively monitoring processing facilities across the state and said outbreaks there are one of the concerns he has going forward. Nevertheless, the governor has moved towards allowing non-essential businesses to reopen on May 4. 

Elsewhere in the state, workers at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph have tested positive for COVID-19. The city's health department confirmed Tuesday close to 70 people with symptoms related to the plant would be tested Wednesday. An hour south, Smithfield Foods closed its plant in Martin City indefinitely. That plant is supplied by the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was closed after hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

Smithfield is still operating its plant in Milan, Missouri. The company won't confirm whether workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility, but workers at the plant say they are now having their temperature taken before starting their shift. Workers submitted a letter detailing complaints about working conditions and a lack of protective equipment at the end of March. Smithfield confirmed late last week it had started providing all workers with masks, after Governor Parson said they should, at a press briefing Thursday. 

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.
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