In April, a worker at the North Dakota Mill in Grand Forks was confirmed to have tested positive for coronavirus.
Shortly after, Vance Taylor, the mill’s CEO, was on the phone with the Herald on a Sunday morning, providing information about the confirmation at the state-owned facility. The office of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum was helpful that day, too. And that was for a single positive test.
And for the better part of two months, the city of Grand Forks has made various leaders available during regular press conferences to answer questions about the pandemic.
But that’s in Grand Forks. In neighboring Polk County, Minn., information isn’t so easily gained.
Over the course of the last week, the Herald pursued information about an outbreak at Douglas Place, an East Grand Forks men’s addiction treatment facility. The newspaper began receiving anonymous tips about an outbreak there Friday, May 8.
Over the course of the next four days, the Herald reached out to Douglas Place or Meridian Behavioral Health, which owns the facility, at least eight times in attempts to confirm the outbreak. Telephone messages and emails were either not returned or staffers referred the Herald to others.
Staff at Polk County Public Health and the Minnesota Department of Health were also largely unresponsive. Doug Schultz, an information officer with the Minnesota Department of Health, early Tuesday morning asked the Herald to inquire about the outbreak in writing, but he did not answer later in the day. The Herald left messages with the office of Sarah Reese, director of the Polk County Public Health Department, but that call was not returned. Reese later followed up with an email in which she said the state health department was conducting case investigations and other follow-ups.
But it took a Grand Forks official – Public Health Director Debbie Swanson – to confirm that at least six people associated with Douglas Place have tested positive.
And here’s the rub: She said it during a Grand Forks – not an East Grand Forks – press conference.
"I think there are plenty of people who are aware, and it definitely does need attention," she told reporters.
Obviously, Douglas Place knew, yet declined to confirm it publicly. The Polk County Health Department knew. The Minnesota Department of Health knew. And Mayor Steve Gander knew as early as April 24, he later told the Herald.
Residents deserve to know when they are at-risk of contracting COVID-19. It’s a potential life-and-death situation, and public entities absolutely must be open and transparent about outbreaks.
More maddening is their lack of response once asked about the outbreak.
It’s important to note that the Herald didn’t reach out specifically to Gander after first hearing of the outbreak. But the newspaper did seek confirmation from Douglas Place, from the county and the state, to no avail.
The city didn’t announce the positive cases, the mayor said, because it deferred to the county and state. Nonetheless, the city, the county and the state need to realize the importance of transparency in times of crisis.
They all could learn a lesson from their neighbors in Grand Forks and North Dakota.