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.

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.

Zhihan Huang / Missouri Business Alert

Cargill has confirmed workers at its Marshall facility have tested positive for COVID-19. The corporation won't say how many individuals have tested positive so far, but says all staff who came into contact with them are being quarantined for 14 days. The meat processing plant, which employs some 620 people, is staying open.

Missouri Highlands Healthcare

Correction: a previous version of this story reported a COMTREA Health employee tested positive for COVID-19. The individual was exposed to the virus outside of work and quarantined, but was not symptomatic.

If someone gets sick in a seven county swathe of the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri, the closest place they can go for care is a clinic run by Missouri Highlands Health Care. Highlands is a federally qualified health center or FQHC, with clinics in some of the least populated and poorest counties in the state. Now, some of those clinics are are cutting back.

Karen White is Highlands’ CEO. She says dental care - a major source of revenue - is now restricted to emergency procedures. "“We just shuttered our dental clinic — we have three of them operating throughout the organization plus a mobile dental,” White said. She’s had to furlough a tenth of Highlands' 200 members so far, and has reduced hours for many others.

Kristofor Husted / KBIA

Farmers and other agricultural sector workers are considered essential under Missouri's new stay-at-home order, but in some ways they are more vulnerable than other workers to COVID-19. That's according to new University of Missouri extension guidelines, which point to the fact that family farming operations often have multiple generations of workers sharing the same equipment. Extension also cites CDC projections which put COVID-19 outbreaks peaking in the middle of planting season as another particular danger.

Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

The University of Missouri System will be out $36.5 million for the rest of the current fiscal year as part of a series of spending cuts Governor Mike Parson announced Wednesday. In a statement, UM System President Mun Choi said, "we must all work together to get past this crisis."

Courtesy of Citizens Memorial Healthcare

As COVID-19 cases have increased exponentially in the U.S., CDC guidelines have led healthcare providers across the country to cancel outpatient procedures and elective surgeries. In rural areas, that's left already struggling clinics and hospitals without a vital source of income. Tim Wolters, director of reimbursement at Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar says his health system now has to balance preparing for COVID-19 cases and maintaining staff. 

Courtesy of Citizens Memorial Healthcare

As COVID-19 cases have increased exponentially in the U.S., CDC guidelines have led healthcare providers across the country to cancel outpatient procedures and elective surgeries. In rural areas, that's left already struggling clinics and hospitals without a vital source of income. Tim Wolters, director of reimbursement at Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar says his health system now has to balance preparing for COVID-19 cases and maintaining staff. 

Sebastian Martinez Valdivia / KBIA

As the number of COVID-19 cases in mid-Missouri is increasing, so too is the amount of community spread. As of Tuesday morning, locally contracted cases accounted for at least 33 of the 63 confirmed cases in Boone County.

The Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services department groups cases into four categories: travel-related, contact with a confirmed case, community transmission and unknown. Cases where the health department isn't able to verify exposure to a confirmed case, and the subject hasn't traveled are grouped under community transmission.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the Broadway Diner was empty. The ‘50s-style greasy spoon has been a fixture of downtown Columbia for decades. But owner Dave Johnson said he’d never seen anything like this. “I was here when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and I thought that was horrible, but it’s nothing like this,” Johnson said.

The diner closed its dine-in space three days ago, following an order from the city government. A few days earlier, Johnson announced the diner would feed any students and community members, after local colleges and the public school system closed.

Las autoridades de la ciudad de Columbia y del condado de Boone han emitido una nueva orden por la que se instruye a la población a permanecer en casa, así como se suspende a todos los establecimientos «no esenciales».  Brian Treece, alcalde de Columbia, dijo que la intención de la orden de Quedarse en casa es disminuir al máximo la cantidad de gente en lugares públicos, para así limitar la transmisión del virus COVID-19 o Coronavirus.

Leaders from the City of Columbia and Boone County announced a new order instructing people to stay at home, and suspending "non-essential" businesses. Columbia Mayor Brian Treece said the order is intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 by minimizing the amount of people in public spaces. 

Under the order, residents should only leave home for what city officials have designated as essential activities. Those activities include getting food, medical supplies, and taking care of family-members in other households. The order also designates essential businesses allowed to continue, which include health care facilities, grocery stores, pharmacies, construction companies, and a handful of others.

Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

MU Health Care says it has upped its response to the COVID-19 pandemic to its highest level. The health system says evidence that people have become infected here in mid-Missouri, rather than while traveling, triggered the move. So far the increased response level has meant screening employees for symptoms and banning most visitors to MU Health facilities.