UPDATED: LM Wind Power outbreak could ‘overwhelm’ Grand Forks health systems, hospital leader warns

U.S. Health Dept. workers prepare a specimen during COVID-19 testing at the LM Wind Power parking lot on Thursday, April 16. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

A COVID-19 outbreak at a Grand Forks factory is “a big deal” that could overwhelm the city’s hospital system, an administrator there said Friday, April 17.

The North Dakota National Guard tested hundreds of people on Thursday, April 16, at LM Wind Power, a General Electric-owned company where at least nine people had tested positive for the disease, which is caused by a novel coronavirus that’s swept across the country.

“While this is still under investigation and we don’t have the final results, we know that this is a very serious event,” Steven Weiser, the president of Altru Health System, said at a virtual city press conference Friday in which he pleaded with residents to stay home, avoid touching their face, wash their hands and self-isolate, if possible, especially if they or a member of their family is considered an “essential” worker. “The potential impact we now face has the ability to overwhelm our health care workers and our health system. .... This is a big deal. We need you to take this seriously and respond appropriately.”

The worry, generally speaking, is that the outbreak could contribute to broader community spread, and a large increase in coronavirus patients might -- keyword “might” -- outstrip the hospital’s resources. Altru has 88 ventilators on hand, which can be a key component of treatment because COVID-19 can harm a patient’s lungs and make it difficult to breathe.

Guard members and other health care workers tested 425 people on Thursday. Results from that batch of tests are still pending.


Weiser caused some confusion about the results of those tests when he said there were “15 positives that we know of already.” He clarified to reporters that those 15 were caught with run-of-the-mill testing at the hospital and only “affiliated with LM Wind Power.”

But, a few hours later, hospital spokesperson Annie Bonzer told the Herald that Weiser misspoke, and that the 15 positive tests were conducted at Altru but were not necessarily affiliated with LM.

“He’s trying to emphasize the fact that our cases are going up in the community,” Bonzer said. “Just kind of painting that story of our cases increasing, so the number he said about the 15 were the positive tested at Altru. Were they associated with LM? Possibly. We don’t know that.”

About 880 people work at LM, mostly in shifts of 100 to 150. In total, they, plus their families, mean that about 2,500 people were in potentially direct contact with the virus. Test results typically come back from the North Dakota Department of Health lab in Bismarck within 24 to 28 hours.

Production at the plant has stopped as crews work to disinfect the facility, according to a spokesperson for General Electric, the company that owns LM Wind Power. The company has not said how long the facility will be closed.

Debbie Swanson, who heads the Grand Forks Public Health Department, said it’s presently working to prevent the LM outbreak from spreading by posting on Facebook.

But, as positive tests roll in, she said, department staff will speak to workers there about the severity of the disease and ask them to name close contacts to or from whom they might have spread or contracted the disease. The state or city’s health officer can order people to stay at home, as well, if push comes to shove.

And the state and city’s health departments also are looking into the LM worksite to analyze workers’ shifts and working conditions.


“When people were working, how many people were in their team,” Swanson said. “That kind of information.”

The state and CDC will then refer to that analysis if -- or when -- they recommend ways the company can change its operations after it reopens.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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