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Coronavirus cases spiking in southwestern Missouri

(AP) — A rural area of Missouri’s far southwestern corner is seeing a big spike in coronavirus cases, driving a record increase in cases in the state.

Missouri reported 389 new cases on Saturday, but that was topped by the 413 new cases reported Sunday — the highest one-day total since the pandemic began. The state reported 143 new cases, and five new deaths, on Monday. Overall, Missouri has reported 18,143 confirmed cases and 961 deaths from COVID-19.

More than half of the new weekend cases came from one county. The McDonald County Health Department announced 235 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, bringing its total to 473. Though the county has just 23,000 residents, only six counties and the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City have confirmed more cases in Missouri.

McDonald County Health Department Director Paige Behm said the big increase was due in part to testing at two poultry plants, one operated by Tyson Foods in Noel and the other operated by Simmons Foods in Southwest City. But Behm said the cases extended beyond workers at the two plants.

“It’s people from all over the community,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s all Tyson or all Simmons.”

Behm said the big increase was “very concerning, but I think it’s important that we’ve done a lot of testing to identify, isolate and contact trace so we can kind of see what’s going on in the community. But it’s more widespread than we realized.”

Missouri’s health director, Randall Williams, said last week that all 1,400 workers at the Tyson plant were being tested. State health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said test results were expected to be released Tuesday, when the state also is expected to announce “additional plans that are being put in place for that area.”

Nearby Newton County reported 142 new cases on Sunday, and cases are also rising in other nearby counties, including 65 new cases in Jasper County, which includes Joplin.

Tyson Foods is looking into reports that China’s customs agency has suspended poultry imports from a Tyson facility in the United States after coronavirus cases were confirmed among its employees. But a Tyson spokesman said Sunday that the plant in question was in Springdale, Ark., not in southwestern Missouri.

McDonald County sits at the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Tyson said in a statement that its top priority was “the health and safety of our team members, their families and our communities.”

While the number of positive tests has risen dramatically, few people require hospitalization. Mercy Hospital Joplin is treating seven patients with COVID-19, and Mercy Hospital Springfield also has seven patients with the virus, officials said.

The McDonald County Health Department, on its Facebook page, urged residents to avoid gatherings beyond immediate family. It suggested that anyone leaving their home wear a mask and practice social distancing.

Missouri was among the earliest states to reopen after the shutdown caused by the virus, and statewide restrictions were lifted effective June 16. Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has urged Missourians to use common sense in taking steps to slow the spread of the virus.

Several rural Missouri outbreaks have been centered on meat plants, including facilities in northwestern and central Missouri. While cases are dropping in the hard-hit St. Louis area, several rural counties are seeing an increase in numbers.

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