Gov. Mike Parson is set to announce the guidelines for Missouri’s economic reopening Friday, but at least two rural counties are already considering how they would safely resume business activities.
The statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire May 3.
"We’re already in negotiations if we want to extend it as a county because our numbers are going the wrong way," said Darrell Hendrickson, Moniteau County Health Department environmental specialist.
Moniteau and Saline counties are both experiencing ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks related to local meat processing plants. Two of those plants, ConAgra in Marshall and Burgers’ Smokehouse in California, remain closed.
According to Fitzgibbon Hospital in Marshall, 111 people have tested positive for the illness in Saline County. At least 82 of those cases are active. That puts Saline County’s infection rate per 100,000 people at 487. Moniteau has an infection rate of 322 cases per 100,000 residents. Both of which surpass St. Louis County, which leads the state in individual cases and has 300 infections per 100,000 people.
Among the counties’ considerations is testing.
Katy Trail Community Health CEO Chris Stewart said she has been communicating with ConAgra leadership about running tests on all employees before the plant resumes business. They are still unsure about how many tests that would be. It depends on how many employees have already been tested for the disease, but Stewart estimates between 300 and 400 tests would be administered.
No such plans have been made in Moniteau County, where Burgers’ Smokehouse remains closed.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Parson and state Health Director Randall Williams said the state will pursue targeted testing even after the stay-at-home order expires. The tests would be administered in areas experiencing a local outbreak.
"As soon as we get some information we would be very interested in making sure testing becomes more available to the citizens as well as the workers," Hendrickson said.
Missouri has lagged behind the nation’s national testing average. Parson promised that testing will increase as the state eyes reopening, but that could be difficult in rural counties.
Moniteau County currently has 48 active cases of COVID-19, which include 19 probable cases.
Probable cases are those that are showing symptoms indicative of COVID-19 and have come into contact with a known COVID-19 case. Moniteau County Presiding Commissioner Mac Finley said some presumed cases may not be tested due to the high likelihood that they are positive for the disease.
"There is not a need for them to be tested," he said.
There are also logistical hurdles to testing in Moniteau County. The small health department doesn’t have a lab to process samples. A local clinic has begun administering tests for the illness, but those samples still must be processed in Jefferson City. Otherwise, patients are advised to go to Jefferson City or Columbia and utilize one of the drive-thru testing sites.
"It is somewhat of a hardship on them to go 20 miles to get to Jeff, but it’s our quickest way," Hendrickson said.
Finley said there are no formal discussions regarding a local stay-at-home order. Local leaders are waiting until the governor releases his guidelines for reopening.
Finley anticipates the governor’s guidelines including a gradual reopening and a stipulation that areas must have logged a decrease in cases or no new cases for a certain period of time.
"We’re a ways away from that," Finley said. "If that’s not the way things stand, we’re going to react accordingly."
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