Missouri reported a new record number of COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, the third record count in four days, but the state remains in good shape with adequate hospital beds and a low rate of spread, the director of the state health department said Tuesday.
Some Missouri locations, like McDonald County, are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks tied to specific locations like food processing plants, Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams said in an interview. And some, like Boone County, are seeing spikes in new cases.
But only a surge — a widespread, rapid increase throughout the state — would be enough to consider reimposing restrictions that are now lifted through most of the state, Williams said.
"We have an outbreak in Missouri, but we do not have a surge of cases throughout Missouri," Williams said just a few hours before his department reported 434 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday.
The total surpasses the 413 cases reported Sunday and the 389 new infections reported Saturday. Missouri has had 18,577 coronavirus infections and 966 deaths since the pandemic reached the state in March.
Boone County, which reported 10 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday and 63 in the last seven days, is having a "spike" in new cases, Williams said. So is the Kansas City area, where Jackson County has had 165 new cases in seven days and Kansas City, which reports separately, has had 208.
Those areas, and in the Joplin region, are the only places in the state that hospitalizations are rising, Williams said.
There were 12 people hospitalized in Boone County with COVID-19 on Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Public Health and Human Services reported. There are 73 active cases and 126 people in quarantine because of contact with a known case.
Gov. Mike Parson, in his daily briefing Tuesday, said he is not looking at reimposing restrictions on gatherings and businesses that he allowed to expire last week.
"We are not overwhelmed," Parson said. "We are not currently experiencing a second wave and we have no intention of closing Missouri back down at this point in time. We remain confident that Missouri is on the road to recovery."
While most of the state is operating without any restrictions on how many people can visit a restaurant or movie theater, in Boone County some limits remain as part of gradual relaxation since the local stay-at-home order was lifted May 4.
As of Tuesday, large gatherings may have no more than 100 people, there is no standing, bar or counter service at bars and restaurants, and personal care services can operate at no more than 50 percent of capacity.
The outbreak in southwest Missouri is the source of most of the infections included in the record case counts of recent days, Williams said. To keep it under control, the state has sent supplies of remdesivir — an antiviral agent with promising results — for use by hospitalized patients.
In addition, the state is sending teams of contact tracers to Newton, Jasper and McDonald counties and will set up community testing in those counties and Barry County on Friday and Saturday, he said.
The state expected to see more cases as it expanded testing and went into places like the Tyson Foods plant and others when infection is found among workers, Williams said.
Finding 200 cases in April is not the same as finding 400 cases in June, he said.
"That is very different than in April, when we were in the midst of community transmission and we were not testing asymptomatic people," Williams said. "Those numbers are very, very different."
While Williams and Parson are not ready to make any changes, in southwest Missouri’s McDonald County, the people who are infected are wondering what they can do.
Pastor Joshua Manning of the Community Baptist Church in tiny Noel, Missouri is closing the building until things improve.
Manning is awaiting his own test results, but he can tell by the persistent fever and body aches that he probably has the coronavirus. His wife and three kids have symptoms, too, as do many in his congregation.
"We did all the things we were supposed to do," Manning, 41, said. "We shut down for two months. But the cases have just started to sprout up."
At the start of June, McDonald County in the far southwestern corner of Missouri had fewer than two dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 498 cases have been confirmed, many of them tied to the Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Noel. Meat processing plants across the U.S. have been stung by outbreaks, including plants in other parts of Missouri.
People from neighboring areas also work at the plant. Newton County, just to the north, has also seen a spike in cases, with 279, most of those announced this month.
The arrival of immigrants to work at the Tyson plant has resulted in a unique and diverse community. Manning said at least 11 different languages are spoken in the town of 1,800 residents, and his church hosts services where five languages are spoken. The Spanish-language pastor is hospitalized with COVID-19.
Manning wonders if government leaders shouldn't have flipped their approach to slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
"We were shut down for two months with no cases within 100 miles of here, and now's the situation where we need to be shut down," Manning said. "I will be fine. My family will be fine. But the risk is going to be older people. I want to keep them away from the church, keep them at home, because I don't want that risk for them."
Tyson said in a statement that its top priority is "the health and safety of our team members, their families and our communities." The company said it has put in place protective measures that include symptom screenings for all employees before every shift, mandatory face masks, social distancing requirements and physical barriers between work stations.
McDonald County Presiding Commissioner Bill Lant said the outbreak was surprising given the county's sparse population spread out over 600 square miles, but he's thankful that most of those who have tested positive have shown mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Only a few people have been hospitalized, and the county has reported no deaths.
"I think we will be fine, it's just a matter of working together, and we are," Lant said. "Everybody's singing out of the same hymn book."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.