The LM Wind Power facility in Grand Forks has temporarily halted production after nine employees tested positive for COVID-19.
A private, coordinated testing event will be held at an undisclosed location in Grand Forks to test employees who had any sort of close contact with those who have tested positive, such as other household members, according to Debbie Swanson, director of Grand Forks Public Health. The health department will then work its way out from there for testing on additional groups. The North Dakota National Guard will assist with the testing.
During a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Swanson said there is not enough testing capacity or supplies to test an entire workforce of people in a short period of time.
The employees of LM Wind Power are not currently under quarantine, since it’s not known if the cases were caused by community spread or workplace spread.
Production at the plant has stopped as crews work to disinfect the facility, according to General Electric, the company that owns LM Wind Power. The company has not said how long the facility will be closed.
There are about 900 workers at the Grand Forks facility, which specializes in the construction of wind turbine blades.
“GE’s No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our employees,” said Tim Brown, spokesperson for GE Renewable Energy, which purchased LM Wind Power in 2017. “GE is supporting the employees at our Grand Forks facility who have tested positive for the coronavirus. We have notified employees at the site that we are temporarily halting production to disinfect and clean the facility. We are working closely with local officials to take all necessary precautions and prioritize everyone’s safety.”
There already were some active screening measures in place in recent weeks at the Grand Forks plant, and more actions, including temperature checks, are being instituted, Brown said during the city’s virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon. Additionally, access to areas like the break room was limited and the facility was ensuring employees were maintaining social distancing or staying home if they did not feel well.
However, two employees who separately reached out to the Herald on Wednesday expressed concerns about how the company was handling COVID-19 precautions. Both said discussions about social distancing had only happened in the past few days. They worry some employees were working while they were ill, and also about the short length of time the plant is expected to be closed. They said they were informed that employees are expected to return to work in a matter of days.
Fearing they could lose their jobs, neither employee felt comfortable providing identifying information.
“We understand that our employees have concerns and we are continuing to talk to them about what we’re doing to keep them safe and what they can do to keep themselves safe,” Brown said. “I think it’s important we understand the climate that we’re in.”
The news comes just after GE announced on Tuesday, April 14, that it would be closing its wind blade facility in Arkansas due to declining demand for its product. The company said the decision was unrelated to what is happening at the Grand Forks facility.
The news also comes as a pork processing plant in South Dakota has had a large outbreak of cases and gained national attention.
The Smithfield Farms plant, located in Sioux Falls, is now the largest hotspot for the coronavirus in the United States. More than 600 of South Dakota’s 1,168 cases are tied to the plant. Virginia-based Smithfield has closed the plant indefinitely starting Wednesday as testing continues.
When asked what public health officials in Grand Forks and North Dakota are doing to ensure the LM Wind Power cases do not escalate like the situation in South Dakota, Swanson said it starts with quick testing.
The testing will help health officials understand whether the positive cases at LM will be attributed to workplace or community spread.
“As a public health department, we’re also going to take this as an opportunity to ensure that all businesses in our community understand the seriousness of this disease and how very important it is for them to put protections into place in the workplace and to ensure that their employees are doing the same things at home,” she said.
There have been 20 positive cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Grand Forks County as of 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Statewide, there have been 365 total positive cases, though 142 people are listed as having recovered from the virus, as of Wednesday morning. Nine deaths have been reported statewide, but none in Grand Forks County.