Missouri county, home of Tyson poultry plant, sees surge in coronavirus cases

Tribune Content Agency

A southwest Missouri county that is home to a Tyson poultry processing plant announced Sunday it has doubled its number of new coronavirus cases.

McDonald County, which has about 23,000 residents, added 196 new cases Sunday, resulting in a cumulative total of 434 cases, according to McDonald County Public Health Administrator Paige Behm.

The county is home to two poultry processing facilities: one in Noel owned by Tyson Foods, and another in Southwest City, owned by Simmons Foods.

The new cases can be attributed to combined results of community testing and testing of Tyson workers, according to Behm. She would not comment on how many of the new cases were of Tyson workers.

“I can say we are seeing quite a few cases coming from the poultry industry and poultry workers,” Behm said.

The same day, China announced it would temporarily suspend shipments from Tyson’s Springdale, Arkansas, facility, where 227 workers tested positive earlier this month, according to NPR.

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Tyson Foods announced last week it would do large-scale testing of its Noel, Missouri, plant workers. The plant is currently operational, and the company did not answer specific questions Sunday about how many of its workers in Missouri have tested positive.

“We will disclose verified test results to health and government officials, team members and other stakeholders once complete data is available as part of our efforts to help communities where we operate better understand the coronavirus and the protective measures that can be taken to prevent its spread,” Morgan Watchous, a Tyson spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.

Tyson announced Friday that of the 3,748 workers it tested onsite at its northwest Arkansas facilities, 13% tested positive for COVID-19. About 455, or 95 percent, of those workers, were asymptomatic.

Tyson workers are screened for symptoms before every shift and are provided protective face masks, according to its blog, The Feed. It also has social distancing measures and physical barriers between work stations and break rooms.

A request for comment to Simmons Foods was not returned.

McDonald County

In Missouri, Behm said McDonald County is awaiting hundreds of test results.

The county has offered drive-thru community testing for the last six weeks.

“Tyson has chosen to go in and do testing on their own,” Behm said. “They are trying to be proactive.”

Most of the newly reported cases in McDonald County were asymptomatic, Behm said. The county has about five or six residents hospitalized because of COVID, she said.

The county has had outbreaks of mumps and Hepatitis-A before, but never like the current coronavirus outbreak, said Behm, who has been with the county health department for 13 years.

The public health department has hired 10 contact tracers to alert the public of potential exposure. To communicate with a sizeable Hispanic and Somali population working at the poultry plants, two of the tracers speak Spanish and all of the tracers have access to interpreters through a language hotline.

The state public health department has offered assistance with contact tracing, Behm added.

“This is a whole different level of contact tracing,” Behm said.

McDonald County currently does not have any restrictions or orders related to COVID-19.

The public health department is one of a few county health agencies that receives directives through a county commission, rather than a board of health. A request for comment to the county’s three commissioners were not returned.

“Basically, the county is following the governor’s guidance at this point,” Behm said. “I couldn’t comment on whether they are going to change that. I’m not sure.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson allowed the statewide order, which required 10 feet of social distancing and capacity limits on businesses, to lapse June 15.

Missouri has seen large outbreaks of coronavirus at plants around the state.

Pork processing plant Triumph Foods in St. Joseph has had at least 490 workers test positive for COVID-19. More recently, Aspen Paper Products in Kansas City reported more than 200 of its workers tested positive for COVID.

There have been 18,003 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 956 deaths in Missouri, as of Sunday, according to the state health department’s tracker tool. There is a 3-day lag in reporting cases.


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