As COVID cases surge, hospitals prepared, health departments taxed

Annie Duff, environmental health specialist with the Joplin Health Department, works in June on contact tracing at the department. 

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is implementing its "box in" strategy to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus in Southwest Missouri, where the number of positive cases has exploded in the past two weeks.

The “box in” strategy for the outbreak involves comprehensive testing, isolating all infected people, locating all contacts of the infected people and having those contacts self-quarantine for 14 days, state health officials said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also will send a team to Southwest Missouri this week to help state and local health officials investigate the outbreak. The investigation, according to the state health department, will determine risk factors for the COVID-19 spread, evaluate the role of meat and poultry plant outbreaks in the community spread of infection, estimate prevalence and determine risk factors for COVID-19 spread in the pediatric population and develop a community mitigation plan.

"It is important to understand that this is a localized outbreak — not a surge of cases throughout the state — and together, we are responding accordingly," said Randall Williams, director of the state health department, in a statement.

The local outbreak has been concentrated largely in McDonald, Newton and Jasper counties.

At the start of June, McDonald County had fewer than two dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Tuesday morning, 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.

Few places, though, have been hit like McDonald County. Although it has just 23,000 residents, only six other Missouri counties and the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City have recorded more cases.

The state health department said other “clusters of cases” also are being watched. Over the past week, Newton County reported about 160 new cases and Jasper County has seen 66 new cases.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson attributed the rise in confirmed cases to increased testing, not a resurgence of the virus.

“We are not overwhelmed,” Parson said during a news conference. “We are not currently experiencing a second wave, and we have no intentions of closing Missouri back down at this point in time.”

Missouri was among the earliest states to start to reopen, and statewide restrictions were lifted effective June 16. Parson frequently urges Missourians to use common sense, but the McDonald County Health Department is going further, stressing the need to avoid gatherings beyond immediate family, to wear a mask when leaving home, and to practice social distancing.

Last week, Missouri health officials began testing all 1,400 workers at the Tyson plant. 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. 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.”

Testing opportunities

The state health department and the Missouri National Guard are partnering with local health departments to host community testing events.

Testing is available:

• On Friday and Saturday at McDonald County High School, 100 Mustang Drive in Anderson. No times were given for the testing window.

• From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Rocketdyne Church of Christ, 1111 Rocketdyne Road in Neosho.

• From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday in Carthage's Memorial Hall, 407 S. Garrison St.

Testing at these sites is available for free only to Missouri residents. Residents do not have to be showing symptoms or need a referral to be tested. An appointment will be required by registering at health.mo.gov/communitytest or by calling the Missouri COVID-19 Hotline at 877-435-8411.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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