Second mass test in Grand Forks uncovers 62 COVID-19 cases, but workplaces less clear

North Dakota National Guard personnel conduct COVID-19 testing in the Alerus parking lot Thursday. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

A mass test for the coronavirus last week in Grand Forks yielded a few more dozen positive cases.

North Dakota National Guard members tested 714 people on Thursday, April 23 , in the parking lot of the Alerus Center. Of those: 62 tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, three tests were inconclusive, and 649 were negative. The people tested that day do not necessarily live in Grand Forks County, which means the results from the large-scale test might not line up with county-by-county numbers compiled by the North Dakota Department of Health.

It’s unclear, at least for now, how many of those people are employees or close contacts of employees at LM Wind Power, the General Electric-owned wind turbine plant that’s seen a large cluster of cases and already prompted a similar “mass testing event” the week before.

It’s also unclear how many of those 714 people work at J.R. Simplot Company, an agricultural processing company that didn’t tell its employees that health workers planned to test them on Thursday of last week.

Health officials planned to test Simplot workers and the close contacts of LM workers, but, the night before the test, Kayce McEwan, Simplot’s senior director of global human resources, told Grand Forks and North Dakota health officials that the company wanted those tests to go to the general public.


“Especially to those who are in high risk categories, who are experiencing symptoms or who live with others who are in high risk categories or have tested positive,” McEwan wrote to Debbie Swanson, the head of Grand Forks Public Health, Amber Schatz, a National Guard public information officer, and Nicole Peske, the state health department’s chief communications officer.

Swanson forwarded that email to Mayor Mike Brown and City Administrator Todd Feland, and Feland forwarded it to city employees Spencer Halvorson, Pete Haga and spokesperson John Bernstrom.

Many Simplot employees reportedly showed up anyway on Thursday after seeing media coverage, including in the Herald , indicating that they were a hoped-for testing group.

Beyond a rumor, there was no outward indication from the Guard or either health department that Simplot had backed away until city staff, after about three hours of testing, announced that the remaining tests were open to anyone older than 12 who had at least two telltale symptoms of the virus. Hundreds of people headed over.

Swanson said, on Monday, that there’s presently no breakdown of which tests were administered to LM contacts, Simplot employees or the public at large.

“That information will be analyzed, hopefully, by the state health department,” she told the Herald. “I’m not sure when they’ll be able to analyze all that information, but I do believe there’s some interest in doing so.”

Swanson said there’s no plan to try to test Simplot employees en masse again unless health workers’ investigations of existing cases lead back that way.

Workers at the North Dakota Department of Health, the Department of Emergency Services and Guard did not respond to Herald requests for comment on Monday about the reasoning behind the hoped-for Simplot tests, but Swanson, on Friday, said its employees were chosen because the company is a large manufacturer.


“We had circumstances that led us to believe that manufacturing might be a place where there is congregate, shared work spaces,” she said. “And so they were simply reached out to. It wasn’t specific to any reports of cases there.”

Simplot announced later that night that an employee there had tested positive for COVID-19.

Health officials might push to test workers at other large operations in town, Swanson said.

Military police interview participants in Thursday's mass coronavirus testing at the Alerus Center parking lot. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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

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