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'Pure Hell' As COVID-19 Hits Meat Processing Plants in Rural Missouri

Courtesy of Erik Martin
Dr. Erik Martin went to New York to help respond to its COVID-19 surge, and is now seeing another surge at home.

When physician Erik Martin left his home in southwest Missouri to help with New York’s COVID-19 outbreak in April, his county had fewer than 10 confirmed cases of the virus. Now he’s back — and watching those numbers skyrocket. More than 400 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 says. He was alarmed when he learned a patient who tested positive worked at the Butterball poultry processing plant in nearby Carthage. After seeing a second Butterball worker, Martin alerted the county health department to the potential outbreak.

“They already knew about the problem and it seemed they had already discussed the problem with state health authorities at that time," Martin recalls.

That was on June 8. But The state didn’t publicly announce it was coordinating a response to the outbreak for more than a week. And a testing program led by the state wasn’t scheduled to start until June 26 — some three weeks after Martin reported the outbreak.

During that time the county confirmed about 200 more cases.

Randall Williams, director of the state health department, says an interpreter and contact tracers have been sent to help. The agency also will lead community testing in four counties in the area. 

“I think it was being dealt with by the locals and then it came to our attention as cases picked up, I think it was one day of 33 and one day of 37," Williams said at a recent news briefing. "And so we immediately got involved then.”

Local health providers say they haven’t gotten enough support from the state, and communication has been uncoordinated and inconsistent. One says recent days were “pure hell.” 

Jasper County Health Director Tony Moehr says in meetings with the state over the past two to three weeks, he regularly reported the increase in cases.  And though hospitals in the county haven’t been overrun with cases, he says that could change.

“If you go on down into the Northwest Arkansas area many of the hospitals down in those areas are starting to become overwhelmed so that could potentially affect our hospital capacity here," Moehr says.

That area, just over the Missouri border, has seen hundreds of new cases linked to the poultry processing industry. It includes a Tyson plant from which China halted imports. Tyson also operates a plant in southwest Missouri. In a statement, the company says it’s working with a private contractor and the county health department to test employees.

Department administrator Paige Behm says she isn’t allowed to comment on cases related to the plant. She says she’s received some support from the state health department, but will likely need more help with contact tracing.

“Right now we’re doing fine but if cases continue to increase we’re going to need more help for sure," Behm says. Her department announced nearly 200 new confirmed cases last weekend.

The increase has stretched health providers in the predominantly rural part of Missouri.

One provider at a community clinic would only speak anonymously due to fears of retribution. She calls recent days “pure hell” and says that after hundreds of tests, the clinic is facing a shortage of test kits.

Now she worries that no one is taking precautions seriously. She points to T-ball games with few people social distancing, and an unofficial prom in one town. 

Martin shares those concerns.

“I feel like I’m trying very hard to raise awareness, and try to get something done and try to stop the problem or at least slow it down and so far I feel like we are failing to do that,” he says. 

When he was working in New York, the city was more or less shut down. But with Missouri fully open, and no additional local restrictions in place, Martin worries not enough is being done to slow COVID-19’s spread.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities.