NOEL, Mo. – Pastor Joshua Manning is waiting for the test results, but from persistent fever and body aches you can tell that he probably has the coronavirus. His wife and three children also have symptoms, and so many members of his Community Baptist Church in Little Noel, Missouri, are infected that he’s closing the building until things get better.
“We did all the things we were supposed to do,” said Manning, 41. “We closed for two months. But the cases have just started to emerge.”
Have they ever done it? In early June, McDonald County in the far southwest of Missouri had fewer than two dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 498 cases have been confirmed, many of them linked to the Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Noel. Meat processing plants in the United States have been affected by outbreaks, including plants in other parts of Missouri.
However, few places have been hit like McDonald County. Although it has only 23,000 residents, only six other Missouri counties and the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City have registered more cases.
Last week, Missouri health officials began evaluating the 1,400 workers at the Tyson plant. The results are expected to be announced soon, along with the state’s plan to address the outbreak.
People from neighboring areas also work at the plant. Newton County, just to the north, has also seen an increase in cases, with 279, most announced this month.
McDonald County, flanked by Arkansas to the south and Oklahoma to the west, is known for its steep cliffs, waterfalls, and breathtaking beauties along the Elk River, a popular camping and floating spot. Noel itself is named after a founding family, but the name that sounds in yuletide causes thousands of Christmas cards and letters to be sent to Noel’s post office every December so they can be stamped in “The Christmas Town “
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 city of 1,800 residents, and her church houses services where five languages are spoken. The pastor in Spanish is hospitalized with COVID-19, Manning said.
Manning wonders if government leaders shouldn’t have changed their approach to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“We were closed for two months with no cases within 100 miles of here, and now is the situation where we need to be closed,” Manning said. “I’ll be fine. My family will be fine. But the risk will be older people. I want to keep them away from church, keep them at home, because I don’t want that risk for them.”
Missouri was one of the first states to start reopening, and state restrictions were lifted beginning June 16. Republican Governor Mike Parson frequently urges Missouri residents to use common sense, but the McDonald County Health Department goes further, emphasizing the need to avoid meetings further. immediate family, wear a mask when leaving home and practice social distancing.
Tyson said in a statement that his highest priority is “the health and safety of our team members, their families and our communities.” The company said it has implemented protective measures that include symptom exams for all employees before each shift, mandatory face masks, social distancing requirements and physical barriers between workstations.
McDonald County Commissioner-President Bill Lant said the outbreak was surprising given the county’s sparse population spanning more than 600 square miles (1,550 square kilometers), but he is grateful that most of those who tested positive in the results they have shown mild symptoms or no symptoms. 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,” said Lant. “They all sing the same hymnbook.”