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Coronavirus cases spiking in southwestern Missouri

Jim Salter
Associated Press

O'FALLON, Mo. – 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.

More than half of those new 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 is 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 extend 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 is "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 testing. The state has not released the results of those tests. An email message left with a Simmons spokesman was not immediately returned.

Nearby Newton County reported 122 new cases on Sunday, and cases are also rising in other nearby counties, including 25 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 is in Springdale, Arkansas, not in southwest Missouri.

McDonald County sits at the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

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

While the number of positive tests has risen dramatically, few people are requiring hospitalization. Mercy Hospital Joplin, the largest hospital in the region, has just seven patients with COVID-19, spokesman Jordan Larimore said.

"We haven't really had a ton of people requiring long-term stay," Larimore 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. Republican Gov. Mike Parson has urged Missourians to use common sense in taking steps to slow the spread of the virus.

Several rural Missouri outbreaks have been centered around 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.

Overall, Missouri has reported 18,003 confirmed cases and 956 deaths from COVID-19.