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Northwest Arkansas Struggles To Deal With A Surge In Coronavirus Cases

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Until recently, the coronavirus largely spared northwest Arkansas. Now that part of the state has as many as 10 times the number of cases it did just a month ago. Hospitalizations are increasing as well. As Zuzanna Sitek of member station KUAF reports, federal health officials are helping try to slow the rise in cases.

ZUZANNA SITEK, BYLINE: For months, activists in northwest Arkansas have held protests demanding poultry plants in the state shut down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: The people united will never be divided.

SITEK: In Springdale, people marched to a Tyson Foods office. Despite the crowd, organizer Magaly Licolli was mindful of health concerns.

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MAGALY LICOLLI: We have masks if you need any masks. And please be respectful of social distancing. It's very important.

SITEK: In this part of Arkansas, poultry workers represent a quarter of all COVID-19 cases. Overall, about half of those infected have been people in the Latino community. Dr. Jose Romero is the Health Department's chief medical officer. He says it appears there's a link between the high transmission rates and those who work in the tight confines of the processing plants. But he can't say that definitively yet.

JOSE ROMERO: We think that one of the reasons why this is happening is because they're essential workers. And we have not yet made a link between the poultry plants and the individuals becoming infected.

SITEK: There have been big outbreaks in other states at food processing plants. Employees often work in close quarters. In addition, many workers and their families live together. In Arkansas, thousands of people from the Marshall Islands have settled in the area and are also employed at the processing plants. They moved here following decades of U.S. nuclear weapons testing near their islands in the Pacific. The Marshallese make up 3% of the population in northwest Arkansas but account for half the coronavirus deaths. Dr. Sheldon Riklon works at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Fayetteville and was raised in the Marshall Islands.

SHELDON RIKLON: Many of us have chronic diseases. You know, we have chronic diseases that's, you know, years in the making. One of the other things is, you know, we've always had limited access to health care and really a lack of access.

SITEK: People from the Marshall Islands are in the U.S. under what's called the Compact of Free Association, so adults aren't eligible for Medicare or Medicaid. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a team of health experts in this part of Arkansas. Angela Hernandez is the CDC team leader. She says they're examining epidemiological data, speaking to community leaders and conducting site visits.

ANGELA HERNANDEZ: This information provided by the community is critical to better understand the transformation dynamics and help us develop recommendations for prevention and mitigation, messages that are tailored to their community.

SITEK: Still, the CDC says it doesn't plan to meet with representatives from the poultry industry. Mireya Reith is executive director of Arkansas United, an immigrants' rights organization. She's met with CDC officials and believes the investigation shouldn't be limited to cultural and community factors.

MIREYA REITH: The reality is, exposure from everything that we have seen thus far are tied to our immigrants being essential workers - right? - and the pressure to keep the economy open.

SITEK: CDC workers say they've learned people here aren't always sure what the best practices are to stop the coronavirus spread. So a lot of their visits include education, like washing hands and wearing a mask.

For NPR News, I'm Zuzanna Sitek in Fayetteville, Ark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH NEUFELD'S "THE GLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.