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25 Valley Senior Living employees put on paid leave after possible exposure to coronavirus

One employee of Valley Senior Living on Columbia tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, April 21. No other employees or residents have tested positive, according to the facility's website.

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U.S. Public Health Service workers test for COVID-19 virus at a drive-thru mass testing at the LM Wind Power facility on Thursday, April 16. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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Employees of Valley Senior Living will be tested for COVID-19 on Sunday, April 26, and residents will be tested on Monday, April 27, in cooperation with the North Dakota Department of Health after an asymptomatic employee at the skilled care facility tested positive for the virus this week. The testing is part of a statewide effort to identify asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus in senior living facilities, a Valley Senior Living spokesperson said.

Valley Senior Living spokesperson Sally Grosgebauer said the employee who tested positive Tuesday, April 22, is among 25 other staff members who were furloughed Saturday after the mass testing event on April 16. Of those 25 employees, three employees have household members who have tested positive for COVID-19, about half have reported household or extended contact with LM Wind Power employees, and the remainder of the employees have been furloughed as a precaution after reporting possible contact with the virus, Grosgebauer said.

Furloughed employees will continue to be paid 100% of their normal wages, Grosgebauer said.

"We do not want our staff to be financially penalized for doing the right thing for our residents," she said.

Valley Senior Living CEO Garth Rydland said, in an emailed statement Wednesday, that the Valley Senior Living employee who tested positive for COVID-19 at the mass testing event is the household member of another asymptomatic carrier of the virus. According to a statement posted Tuesday to the facility's website, the employee last went to work on April 16. The household member tested positive for COVID-19 on April 18, and the employee was tested the same day. Their test results came back positive on Tuesday afternoon, according to the statement.

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Valley Senior Living on Columbia, a skilled care facility located at 2900 14th Ave. S. on the Altru campus, employs 435 people and is home to about 175 residents, Grosgebauer said. In addition to the Columbia facility, Valley Senior Living operates three other senior living facilities in Grand Forks. According to the statement posted on its website Tuesday, no other employees and no residents of any Valley Senior Living community have tested positive for COVID-19. Including those in the Columbia facility, Valley Senior Living communities are home to about 550 residents and employ about 900 people.

After learning of a potential outbreak of COVID-19 at a Grand Forks manufacturer, Grosgebauer said Valley Senior Living began screening all employees for close and household contact with people employed at the LM Wind Power plant. Valley Senior Living is also conducting internal contact tracing and is prepared to assist the local health department, if needed, Grosgebauer said.

"We will make progress against the spread of COVID-19 with active screening, contract tracing and aggressive testing," Rydland said in his statement. "However, as this spreads, it becomes much more difficult to target any group of people from a precautionary standpoint. It is imperative that all of us in this community do everything we can to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

The North Dakota Department of Health recommends masks and other personal protective equipment be reused in order to conserve supplies, but after last week's outbreak in Grand Forks, Valley Senior Living transitioned to daily-use masks for its employees, Grosgebauer said. Residents and staff are monitored twice a day for the onset of respiratory illness.

In an effort to halt any spread of coronavirus in the Valley Senior Living facilities, staff are required to wear personal protective equipment for the duration of shifts, and residents are required to wear donated cloth masks any time they receive care. Face-to-face visitation and group meals and activities have been suspended.

Grosgebauer said that, in a skilled care facility, contact between staff and residents is more frequent due to residents' need for additional care and assistance.

"Our staff is certified and licensed to complete the care needed. We continue social distancing, masking and wearing proper eye protection, masking for residents, etc.," Grosgebauer said. "This is the residents' home. We are equipped and comfortable caring for them in their home, and we are trained to move them to a higher level of care if and when that is needed."

According to the North Dakota Department of Health, there have been 679 cases of COVID-19 in North Dakota, and 154 cases in Grand Forks. Statewide, 23 people are currently hospitalized, 14 people have died and 229 are considered to have recovered.

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Hannah Shirley covers crime, courts and criminal justice for the Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2018 graduate of the University of Idaho and has lived and worked in Grand Forks since 2019. Prior to moving to North Dakota, she worked as a reporter for the Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass., a receptionist for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Moscow, Idaho, and a barista in a New York City coffee shop. She can be reached by phone at (701) 780-1267 or by email at hshirley@gfherald.com.
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