Rural Missouri counties with meat plants see virus spikes

(AP) — Two rural Missouri counties are seeing huge spikes in coronavirus cases, including many connected to meatpacking plants.

Saline County reported on Wednesday 96 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Moniteau County reported 55 cases, citing 29 as confirmed and 26 as “probable.” Neither county has reported a death.

Statewide, the number of confirmed cases topped 6,000 on Wednesday. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, which is monitoring cases worldwide, shows 6,210 cases in Missouri, up 247 from Tuesday. The number of deaths rose by 14 to 229.

While the vast majority of Missouri cases have been in the largest cities and their suburbs, data provided by Saline and Moniteau counties showed they have the highest per capita rates of infection in the state: 419 cases per 100,000 residents in Saline County, and 341 cases per 100,000 residents in Moniteau County.

By comparison, the city of St. Louis has an infection rate of 290 per 100,000 residents, based on data provided by the state health department, St. Louis County has an infection rate of 234 per 100,000, and Kansas City has a rate of 89 per 100,000.

Saline and Moniteau counties are home to several meatpacking plants, facilities where people work shoulder-to-shoulder on production lines. Across the Midwest, several packing plants have seen similar outbreaks, prompting the temporary closure of a Tyson Foods facility in Waterloo, Iowa; a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.; and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minn.

Burgers Smokehouse, a smoked and cured meat manufacturer in the Moniteau County town of California, also is closed. Twenty-one employees came down with the coronavirus, said Darrell Hendrickson, Moniteau County’s environmental specialist. He said “the majority” of COVID-19 cases in the county of 16,100 residents were connected to those workers, including relatives and friends. All but one of the 55 cases involve people age 59 or younger.

Hendrickson estimated that about 300 people worked at the plant. He said Burgers did “everything we asked,” including instituting social distancing requirements “as best they can.”

“That’s the problem with facilities of this type,” Hendrickson said. “They have distanced as much as possible, but I can’t guarantee they get 6 feet between all employees.”

Cargill Inc. also operates a plant in Moniteau County, but no employees there have contracted the virus, Hendrickson said.

In Saline County, home to about 23,000 residents, both ConAgra and Cargill operate plants in the town of Marshall. Saline County Health Department Administrator Tara Brewer said some cases involved plant workers but didn’t have a specific number.

Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan confirmed that employees at the Saline County plant had contracted the coronavirus, but declined to say how many. An email message left with ConAgra was not immediately returned.

Sullivan said Cargill had taken extra steps to make sure meatpacking plant workers were safe, including providing masks, temperature checks and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of equipment.

Brewer believes the high per capita rate in Saline County is due partly to aggressive testing. The county offers drive-up testing 24 hours a day and about 800 people have been tested, she said.

June Heath

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