Audrain County cases of COVID-19 continue to climb after an outbreak of the virus at hog concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in Thompson and Paris.

Audrain County now has 22 active cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday afternoon. Of that number 21 have been found in the past week.

Four cases were confirmed Monday at the hog operations ran by Brenneman Pork of Washington, Iowa. There were 11 positives Tuesday, nine of which were tied to the hog farms. Five new cases were confirmed Wednesday by the Audrain County Health Department, but a news release did not confirm if these five cases were tied to the hog farms. One new case was confirmed Thursday afternoon, but it also is unclear if it is connected to the hog farms.

"The safety of our team and the community is our No. 1 priority," a statement from Brenneman Pork read. "We are working closely with the state and local public health departments."

It is the first known instance of a COVID-19 outbreak at a CAFO in Missouri. Other outbreaks have taken place at meat packing facilities throughout the state, either slowing or stopping production output while staff are tested.

The most recent known production facility outbreak was at the Kraft-Heinz plant in Kirksville, which produces all of the Oscar-Meyer bologna in the U.S. The cases came on the same day that the Missouri Chamber of commerce asked for a law to protect businesses from lawsuits by sick workers. Saline County, which has a Cargill plant, is considered a rural COVID-19 hotspot with 256 cases as of Wednesday afternoon.

The Brenneman operation in Thompson is under a Class IB permit from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which allows between 7,500 to 17,499 animal units over 55 pounds and between 30,000 to 69,999 under 55 pounds. The Paris operation also is Class IB. There are around 30 employees at each operation.

Employees live at a mobile home park within Audrain County, health department Administrator Sandra Hewlett said.

"They had tested 15 people and 13 out of 15 were positive," Hewlett said Tuesday night. "They are going to be testing more."

Brenneman Pork and the health department have a good working relationship so far, she said.

"We probably will see more cases," she said.

There is no real way to tell an origin point among employees as between two to four employees share trailers in the mobile home park.

"It could have been anywhere," Hewlett said. "You will never really know where ground zero was because the bottom line is they could have gone anywhere and caught it."

The health department is continuing to contact trace farm employees. All affected employees are under quarantine.

"All parties are doing the right thing for Audrain County," Hewlett said.

There is no evidence yet that COVID-19 can transfer from hogs to people. There only is anecdotal evidence that COVID-19 has transferred from people to household pets. Brenneman Pork also recognizes that human to animal transference of COVID-19 is not yet observed.

"COVID-19 has significantly impacted all areas of our society. Agriculture and the pork industry are no exceptions," the statement read.

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center isn’t convinced, though.

"Lots of things scare me about [the outbreak]," crisis center Communications Director Tim Gibbons said.

He is worried industrial livestock operations could be a breeding ground for virus mutations.

"We argue against CAFOs on a lot of fronts, but the potential for disease is another negative implication with industrial livestock production," he said.

All of the The Mexico Ledger’s coronavirus coverage is being provided free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to The Mexico Ledger at Help keep local businesses afloat at