Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown on Monday said the city was notified last month about health concerns at LM Wind Power.
The city responded with a follow-up call, but it did not inspect the facility since it has not been city protocol to do such inspections of private businesses, according to the mayor and the head of the city’s health department.
The mayor, during a regularly scheduled press conference, said the city received an email on March 22 from an LM employee who was concerned that physical distancing guidelines were not being followed at the Grand Forks facility, which manufactures blades for wind turbines.
The email was distributed to the mayor’s office and Grand Forks Public Health, according to Brown. On Monday, March 23, the mayor’s office advised the city health department that it would respond to the concern. Later, Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation CEO Keith Lund made contact with plant management on behalf of the city and explained the concerns received from LM employees. The company assured Lund it was following guidelines. Brown said he was satisfied with the information Lund forwarded from LM Wind Power, which is owned by General Electric.
It all helps fill in a timeline at LM Wind, which has become a hotspot for coronavirus cases in North Dakota.
The North Dakota Department of Health says there now are 128 total positive cases associated with the Grand Forks facility, including employees and close-contact individuals. Of the 128 positive cases, 99 people tested positive for COVID-19 through a large-scale testing event that was performed at LM Wind Power last week. A total of 426 people were tested at the event; 323 people tested negative and four tests were unable to be run. According to state data, of the 99 positives associated with LM Wind, 72 are LM employees, 19 are still under investigation and eight are not employed there.
Another 29 people associated with LM tested positive outside of the testing event held last week, meaning they tested positive at a clinic or hospital. Eleven who tested positive are from Minnesota.
Also Monday, the city confirmed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – commonly referred to as OSHA – was contacted about LM Wind prior to the recent outbreak of coronavirus cases. It is investigating the claims.
“Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees,” a GE spokesperson said in a statement. “We have been in regular communication with our employees about following CDC guidelines, and we also informed OSHA and the city of additional steps we have taken to help protect employees, including going to active screening for all employees and essential visitors, temperature checks, and other safety measures.”
The Herald last week reported that two employees reached out to the newspaper to express concerns about how the company was handling COVID-19 precautions. On Wednesday, April 15, both of those employees said discussions about social distancing at the plant had only happened in the previous few days. They worried some employees were working while ill.
Fearing they could lose their jobs, neither employee felt comfortable providing identifying information.
The city was first made aware of multiple employees testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, April 14. However, a physical inspection of the plant was not done by the city. It’s not city protocol to conduct inspections, according to Debbie Swanson, director of Grand Forks Public Health.
“We do not do inspections of various businesses and industries,” Swanson said during Monday’s press conference. “When we hear about concerns, we certainly try to follow up to the best of our ability. But was a physical inspection made of this particular plant? No.”
Brown said ramping up inspections would be a “logical next step.”
“We need to ensure that there's compliance with our directives,” Brown said.
Swanson noted that there are many issues for the city to work through, especially as it hasn’t dealt with a pandemic before.
She said public health has stepped up some efforts to ensure businesses are following guidelines and directives during this time. Through a partnership with Altru Health System, there is a “workplace solutions” group charged with reaching out to businesses with additional information about keeping employees safe. Workplace inspections are under the purview of OSHA, Swanson said.
Grand Forks County has 138 confirmed cases overall, according to the most recent state data.
"As the coronavirus moves into our region, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines are now more important than ever,” Brown said, noting that those guidelines apply to employees and employers.
Monday, the North Dakota Department of Health also reported another three deaths related to COVID-19, all in Cass County. All three had other underlying health conditions. Thirteen people overall have died in North Dakota due to COVID-19.
Statewide, 627 individuals have now tested positive for COVID-19, up 42 from Sunday. Fifty-three people have been hospitalized, with 17 currently hospitalized, according to the state. No new recoveries were reported Monday, but at least 189 people have recovered from the illness statewide.
Across the state 14,747 individuals have been tested for COVID-19, including 1,117 tests processed Sunday. Of those 14,747 tests, 14,120 have come back negative.
The LM Wind Power plant will be closed for at least 14 days as it deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. The company will be paying its workers during the closure. A self-quarantine order also is in place for all employees.