© 2022 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

'Pure Hell' As COVID-19 Outbreak Hits Southwestern Missouri

Courtesy of Erik Martin
Dr. Erik Martin went to New York to treat COVID-19 patients before returning home to face another outbreak in southwest Missouri.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the state's community testing would begin on June 29, rather than the correct date of June 26.

When physician Erik Martin left his home in Joplin to help with New York’s COVID-19 outbreak in April, his county had fewer than 10 confirmed cases of the virus. Since returning in May, those numbers have skyrocketed: nearly 300 Jasper County residents have tested positive, and more than 800 are in quarantine.

“I never expected that within such a short period of time, my home town would become a COVID hotspot, as it has now,” Martin said. He was alarmed when he first learned a patient who tested positive worked at the Butterball poultry processing plant in nearby Carthage. After seeing a second Butterball worker, he alerted the county health department to the potential outbreak.

“They already knew about the problem and it seemed they had already discussed the problem with state health authorities at that time," Martin said. 

Credit Office of Governor Mike Parson
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Randall William speaks at a press briefing.

That was on June 8. The state didn’t publicly announce it was coordinating a response to the outbreak for more than a week - the same day the governor announced the state was fully reopen. During that time the county confirmed nearly 200 more cases. Local health providers say they haven’t gotten enough support as cases have spiked, and communication has been uncoordinated and inconsistent.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams says his department has sent an interpreter and contact tracers to help with the response, and will be carrying out community testing in four counties in the area. “I think it was being dealt with by the locals and then it came to our attention as cases picked up, I think it was one day of 33 and one day of 37," Williams said. "And so we immediately got involved then.”

Jasper County Health Director Tony Moehr says in regular meetings with the state over the past two to three weeks, he regularly reported the increase in cases to the state health department. He says while hospitals in the county haven’t been overrun with cases, that could change.

“If you go on down into the Northwest Arkansas area many of the hospitals down in those areas are starting to become overwhelmed so that could potentially affect our hospital capacity here,” Moehr said.

Northwest Arkansas has seen hundreds of new cases linked to the poultry processing industry, including cases from a Tyson plant from which China has halted imports.

Tyson also operates a plant across the border in McDonald County, Missouri an hour south of Carthage. In a statement, the company says it’s working with a private contractor and the county health department to test employees at the plant. Department administrator Paige Behm said she wasn’t allowed to comment on cases related to the plant. She says she’s received some support from the state health department, but will likely need more support with contact tracing.

“Right now we’re doing fine but if cases continue to increase we’re going to need more help for sure,” Behm said. Her department announced nearly 200 new confirmed cases over the weekend.

The increase in cases has stretched health providers in the predominantly rural part of the state. One provider, who works at a federally qualified health center in the region and agreed to speak anonymously says the last week has been, “pure hell.” She says her clinic has done hundreds of tests, and are facing a shortage of test kits.

While she says she has seen cases from the Butterball plant, she’s also seen a lot of school age kids come in to be tested after attending summer camp or hanging out with friends. She worries that no one is taking precautions seriously, pointing to T-ball games she’s seen with few people social distancing, and an unofficial prom that took place in Carthage over the weekend.

Credit dcp / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage, Missouri, which has seen a significant spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Physician Erik Martin shares those concerns. When he was working in New York, the city was more or less shut down. But with Missouri fully open, and no additional local restrictions in place, Martin worries not enough is being done to slow the spread.

“I feel like I’m trying very hard to raise awareness, and try to get something done and try to stop the problem or at least slow it down and so far I feel like we are failing to do that,” Martin said. The national guard will facilitate the state’s community testing in Jasper, Barry, Newton and McDonald counties starting June 26, which will be three weeks since Martin first flagged a potential outbreak. Those four counties have already seen confirmed cases increase from just over 130, on or before June 8, to more than 1,000.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and 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.