A person wears a mask while crossing a street past a sign encouraging people to wash their hands in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus Friday, April 24, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
View All (3)

O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) — Missouri health officials are hoping that a new testing strategy will help quickly identify people infected with the coronavirus at meatpacking and food plants throughout the state.

Outbreaks of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, have occurred at several U.S. meatpacking plants, where hundreds of people work next to each other on production lines and often share space in locker rooms and cafeterias. Several plants have been forced to temporarily close.

In Missouri, at least 21 employees tested positive at Burgers Smokehouse, a smoked and cured meats plant in the small city of California. Forty-two of the 700 employees at a Conagra frozen meals plant in Marshall have also contracted COVID-19. And in St. Joseph, 16 workers at a Triumph Foods pork plant tested positive.

Dr. Randall Williams, Missouri’s health director, said the state is deploying a new strategy to quickly test workers, including those who are asymptomatic, at plants where confirmed cases have occurred. The goal is to more quickly identify those who have the virus in the hopes of preventing it from spreading.

Triumph Foods spokesman Chris Clark said all 2,800 employees of the St. Joseph plant will be tested, even those showing no symptoms.

“Given the variability in symptoms experienced, this is an important step to prevent the spread in the workplace and the community,” the company said in a statement.

The number of confirmed cases in Missouri increased by 163 on Saturday, to 6,788. Deaths from the disease rose by 10, to 272, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, which is monitoring cases worldwide. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The peak number of COVID-19 patients at St. Louis-area hospitals is expected to occur this weekend, according to Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. Garza said more than 1,000 coronavirus patients have been treated and discharged since the pandemic began.

More than half of Missouri's confirmed cases, and nearly two-thirds of the deaths, have occurred in St. Louis city and county.


Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak