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Rural Missouri counties with meat plants see virus spikes

A medical staffer holds the hand of a patient, in the ICU of the Bassini Hospital, in...
A medical staffer holds the hand of a patient, in the ICU of the Bassini Hospital, in Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan, Italy, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP) (KY3)
Published: Apr. 22, 2020 at 12:51 PM CDT
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Two rural Missouri counties are seeing huge spikes in coronavirus cases, including many connected to meatpacking plants.

Saline County on Wednesday reported 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, South Dakota, and a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Burgers Smokehouse, a smoked and cured meat manufacturer in the Moniteau, Missouri, 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 are 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 work 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 involve plant workers but didn't have a specific number. Email messages seeking information from ConAgra and Cargill were not immediately returned.

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.