Sebastián Martinez Valdivia | KBIA

Sebastián Martinez Valdivia

Health Reporter

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.

Columbia and Boone County leaders are extending the current COVID-19 public health order, amid a spike in cases and hospitalizations.

Health officials are not adding any restrictions, but are asking area residents to take precautions to help curb the current trends. Health Director Stephanie Browning says while her department is considering new limits, they can only go so far. She says many people are attending gatherings just outside the county, where its orders don’t apply.

Sara Shariari / KBIA

The University of Missouri announced Thursday the majority of its in-person classes will switch to remote instruction after the school's Thanksgiving break. 

In an email Chancellor and UM System President Mun Choi sent out Thursday afternoon, he wrote the main reason for the change was the surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the broader community, and the spike in hospitalizations

Wikimedia Commons

A month ago, there were fewer than 60 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Boone County. This week, there were more than 140. COVID-19 hospitalizations are up across the state, with more than 2,000 people admitted as of November 7, according to the Missouri Hospital Association.

The increase was enough to push BJC Healthcare to start deferring some scheduled procedures at hospitals in the St. Louis area. Columbia hospitals aren’t there yet, but it’s not out of the question.


Incumbent Republican Caleb Rowden narrowly won a second term in the Missouri State Senate Tuesday night with 52% of the vote. Rowden, retains his seat in state senate District 19, which comprises Boone and Cooper counties.


Incumbent Republican Caleb Rowden narrowly won a second term in the Missouri State Senate Tuesday night with 52% of the vote. Rowden, retains his seat in state senate District 19, which comprises Boone and Cooper counties.

Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

KBIA will be maintaining this post as a place to update you with the latest news on the 2020 local, state and national elections. 

As Missourians head to the polls on Tuesday, hundreds of thousands have already voted with absentee and mail-in ballots. KBIA will have more than a dozen reporters covering races across mid-Missouri all day and into the evening. Even before election results start coming in, you can follow our coverage on our official Twitter account and on our live blog, which you can find below.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

This story was updated on November 5, 2020 to include comment from Dr. Jonathan Heidt.

When MU Health Care closed one of its two drive-thru coronavirus testing sites in mid-September, it pointed to a drop in the number of people getting tested. At that point, drive thru testing appointments had fallen by more than 1,000 from the peak of nearly 3,200 at the end of August. Since then, appointments have fallen further, dropping to just 1,500 the week of October 19.

Dr. Jonathan Heidt is the vice chair of operations for emergency medicine at MU Health Care and oversees the system's coronavirus testing. He says demand has fluctuated, increasing in the summer, and spiked at the end of August, as university students returned for classes. Since then demand has tailed off, and Heidt says that's worrying, especially with the positivity rate increasing. "We really should be doing more testing to find those cases and intervene on them," Heidt said. 

MU Health Care's main campus, near Stadium Blvd. in downtown Columbia.
Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are on the rise in Missouri, especially in parts of the outstate with fewer hospital resources. Smaller rural hospitals are referring patients to larger more resourced hospitals in major outstate cities including Springfield and Columbia.

For Steve Edwards, the earliest warning signs started popping up in July. As the CEO of Cox Health in Springfield, Edwards has seen hospitalizations spike since the start of September. Nearly 70 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized at Cox as of Thursday and more than 90 people have died from the disease at Cox facilities.

MU Health Care's main campus, near Stadium Blvd. in downtown Columbia.
Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

Weeks after a major spike in COVID-19 cases in Boone County, hospitalizations are on the rise. The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services said the week of September 14 saw an all-time high of 61 total hospitalizations, with 11 patients on ventilators.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

In less than a month, more than 1,300 students at the university of Missouri have tested positive for the coronavirus. Case investigation and contact tracing are key components of controlling the outbreak, but students say the university is falling behind.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

In a press briefing Friday morning, Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Director Stephanie Browning announced new orders for the county, in light of an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases.

The restrictions apply largely to alcohol sales and restaurant and bar operations, as well as social gatherings. They come on the heels of two weeks of rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases in the county, which currently has a seven-day positivity rate of 44.6 percent, according to Browning.  The seven-day positivity rate is calculated by dividing the amount of positive tests by the number of overall positive tests during that time period.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

More than 160 students at the University of Missouri have tested positive for COVID-19, according to numbers MU published Monday afternoon. 

The university's online dashboard shows 168 students have tested positive since August 19. 159 are considered active cases.

Sara Shariari / KBIA

The University of Missouri will require students who test positive for the virus to report the results directly to the university within four hours of receiving them.

The requirement is part of a set of new policies MU issued on Monday, a week before classes are set to start on August 24. 

Courtesy of Angela Kender

More than 1,200 Missourians have died from COVID-19 since the first confirmed case back in March. With new data and every day, the human aspect of that loss can get lost in the numbers. Angela Kender is looking to change that.

After losing her mother to COVID-19 in June, Kender has decided to organize a project to commemorate her, and everyone else who has lost loved ones to the disease. She’s collecting photographs of those lost at Kender plans to take the photographs to the Missouri state capitol during the current legislative special session.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

Francisco Bonilla is a pastor who runs a low-power radio station out of his church, Casa de Sanidad in Carthage, Missouri. On a hot summer day, he’s showing me around the studio.

Bonilla mainly uses the station to broadcast sermons and religious music. These days, he’s also focused on COVID-19, which has hit a lot of Latinx workers at the Butterball poultry processing plant.

Courtesy of Seth Thompson

Seth Thompson learned about COVID-19 early.  He’s an engineer in Carthage, Missouri, a town of just under 15,000 that sits along historic route 66 in the southwest corner of the state. The virus first came to Thompson’s attention in February, when the global firm he works for shut down its offices in China. Back then, the danger seemed remote.

“We were seeing the news; it looked terrible, and it was but it just wasn’t here yet," Thompson said. 

Joplin hospital
zensmom1 / Flickr

Southwest Missouri has seen the biggest spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state in recent weeks, and as local leaders try to address the outbreak, one measure that they’ve discussed is requiring masks.

While an increasing amount of research supports the use of masks in public to reduce transmission of the virus, masks have become polarizing, as Joplin Mayor pro tem Keenan Cortez found out when his city raised the possibility of a mask ordinance.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

The Columbia city council passed an ordinance requiring people in the city to use masks. The ordinance passed six to one and takes effect this Friday at 5 p.m. It requires everyone age ten and up to use a face mask any time they might come into contact with someone they don’t live with, with a handful of exemptions.

People with medical conditions preventing the use of a mask aren’t required to wear one, and there are other exemptions for outdoor activities, among others.

Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services

In five of the 10 Columbia city budgets starting in the 2010 fiscal year, local leaders cut funding for the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human services. The city spent more on public health a decade ago than it does now, with funding for the department dropping from just over $8 million in 2010 to just under $7.8 million in 2020. 

The drop in funding is consistent with health departments of similar size across the country, which have seen a 14 percent reduction in per capita spending over the last decade, according to a study by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).  The overall public health workforce declined by 17 percent over the same period, while the national population increased 8 percent. 

As COVID-19 Cases Increase, Health Officials Struggle To Access Federal Funds

Jun 30, 2020
Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

More than two months after the president approved a funding package to bolster local response to COVID-19 outbreaks, the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services department hasn’t received a penny. As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to increase, according to health director Stephanie Browning the department has only been able to bring on two additional contact tracers - its retired former epidemiologist, and one of its former nurses: both on a part-time basis.


While the state health department has provided contact tracing support for some local health departments facing major outbreaks, Boone County health officials say they’ve been asking for help for months to no avail. Assistant Health Director Scott Clardy says it’s been a frustrating experience.



Courtesy of Erik Martin

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.

Zia Kelly / KBIA

Hundreds gathered in Downtown Columbia this weekend for several demonstrations protesting police violence after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. 

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

Meat processing plants across the MIdwest have become hotspots for COVID-19. Now rural health workers are trying to keep track of workers who get sick -- and those exposed to the disease. But that’s challenging because many workers are immigrants or refugees, and there’s a language barrier.

Glenda Cervantes’s work at the Saline County Health Department usually involves helping people see if they qualify for social services. But for the last two months she’s been responding to the local COVID-19 outbreak instead.

Tony Webster / CC BY 2.0

The Camden County Health Department confirmed Friday that a Boone County resident who tested positive for COVID-19 visited Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend. In a news release, the department listed a number of establishments the person visited, including some depicted in videos that attracted international attention over the past week. 

Preston Keres / Departamento de Agricultura de los Estados Unidos

Yordani Hernández tiene temor de volver al trabajo. Yordani tiene 45 años y es empleado de la planta procesadora de carne de Triumph Foods en St. Joseph, Missouri. La semana pasada, a Hernández le tomaron una muestra para COVID-19, que salió negativa, pero teme tener que trabajar al lado de otros que dieron positivo para el coronavirus. El Miercoles, un empleado de la planta murió de COVID-19.


Preston Keres / U.S. Department of Agriculture

A Buchanan County resident in his 40s who worked at Triumph Foods died Wednesday from COVID-19. The St. Joseph City Health Department confirmed the man tested positive for the virus on April 22.

The health department said in a statement the man had some underlying medical conditions. The state Department of Health and Senior Services tested more than 2,000 workers over the past week, with more than 400 testing positive.

Preston Keres / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Yordani Hernández is scared to go to work. The 45-year-old works at Triumph Foods, which had its first employee die from COVID-19 on Wednesday. Hernández was tested for COVID-19 last week, and while his test came back negative, he’s worried about working alongside others who tested positive. 

Hernandez says everyone is scared, but they are afraid to act because they fear reprisals. He says he was tested after having been in contact with one of the first three workers to test positive.


Smithfield Foods, uno de los mayores productores de carne en el país, estaría operando su planta en Milan, Missouri, en una manera que estaría contribuyendo a la propagación del coronavirus, de acuerdo a lo planteado en un juicio federal abierto el jueves 23 de abril en Kansas City. 

Smithfield Foods, one of the biggest meat producers in the country, is operating its plant in Milan, Missouri, "in a manner that contributies" to the spread of the coronavirus, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Kansas City.

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.