Pope County officials concerned over ‘cluster’ of positive COVID-19 cases

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — The Pope County judge is joining with the mayor of Russellville to warn the public in the Arkansas River Valley not to let their guard down even as more parts of the economy reopen from coronavirus shutdowns.

Both civic leaders are concerned about what they call “clusters of cases” that are cropping up in Pope County and across the river in Yell County that coincide with the recent relaxing of restrictions, though they say they are not emerging from community spread.

“We’ve received about 10 from one location and about 10 to15 out of another location,” said Judge Ben Cross. “These are centralized and they’re localized, and what I mean by that is, it’s small pockets that have received the new infection rates.”

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An outbreak within an in-patient drug rehab facility accounts for one cluster. 

The second comes from an unexpected group of independent workers in the poultry industry called “chicken catchers.” Judge Cross describes them as teams of workers, often families and typically Hispanic, that travel to chicken farms and physically catch birds from pens and bring them to the many processing plants in the River Valley.

While giant meat processing companies like Arkansas-based Tyson Foods have seen outbreaks at plants in other parts of the country, facilities in the Natural State have so far avoided closures. 

Cross says there haven’t been any significant outbreaks inside Russellville’s big plants, including Tyson and Conagra in the middle of the city.

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“We’ve been fortunate in this area right now to not have sustained any large outbreaks,” the judge said. “The cases that we do have, have been isolated, and the county’s big employers have been diligent about putting [safety] measures in place.”

But the timing of the clusters still offers the civic leaders a chance to send a message as restaurants open and hair gets cut and styled again.

“We don’t want complacency to dwell and start something that we could have prevented,” Cross said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Arkansas Department of Health showed 76 reported cases in Pope County and 30 in Yell County since the outbreak began to be tracked in March.