Pork plant closure highlights need for testing at Range mines | Covid-19

The coronavirus has infected more than 2,400 Minnesotans and killed at least 140 in less than two months since the state’s first confirmed case on March 6.

Its rapid rate of transmission has made so-called congregate care settings — nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, in particular — potential hotspots to host the virus in large numbers and easily spread it throughout a location. Care centers remain the hardest hit, but up until recently the state’s large-scale workplaces were spared of the impacts.

Then JBS was hit.

A Worthington pork plant based in Minnesota’s southwestern Nobles County and owned by JBS USA is home to more than 2,000 workers and processes 20,000 pigs a day, a key cog for hog farmers in the region that accounts for 4 percent of the nation’s pork supply.

On Monday, JBS indefinitely closed the plant after COVID-19 began hurtling through its facility and Nobles County, where cases rose from 12 last Friday to 77 on Monday, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Of the 41 interviews performed by health officials of people with positive tests — a process known as tracing that aims to find other people and places patients came in contact with to measure potential exposure — 33 were employees of JBS and six were family members of workers.

The swift nature of the Worthington outbreak underscores the state’s race for widespread testing and its ability to locate and contain a hotspot in a major employment setting, where closing could further damage a local economy already battered by the virus.

“In the long run if your workforce can’t come to work it doesn’t matter if you are open or closed by state Stay-at-Home orders,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz during a briefing Monday. “The facts remain the same.”

Minnesota Department of Health officials treat large employers in the same fashion as congregate care settings, defining it broadly as “a place where many people spend eight hours or more in relatively close proximity to each other,” according to a spokesperson.

“If a case is identified in a workplace, we assign a case manager to work with the facility to evaluate infection control practices and identify ways for the business to operate more safely, such as by improving social distancing, adjusting shifts, etc.,” said MDH spokesperson Doug Schultz over email last Saturday. “We also assign epidemiologists to identify and interview ill workers and identify other workers who may have been exposed and advise them on isolation and quarantine (contact and trace).”

Through MDH and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, employers were provided guidelines dealing with social distancing, sick leave, disinfecting and other safety measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

“You can see the concentration there as related to the plant, which is why it’s so very important that we understand it and get in there and understand more clearly what is going on with the plant situation,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in the briefing Monday. “We know the importance of congregate settings, whether we’re talking about care facilities, housing facilities, jail facilities or now we see — and have seen around the country — the potential for rapid spread in manufacturing facilities, especially ones of closed quarters.”

Jan Malcolm

Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Department of Public Health Commissioner, provides an update on the state’s response to COVID-19 during a news conference on Monday, April 20, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn.

Mines as congregate settings

On the Iron Range, where iron ore mines were deemed an essential business by the Stay-at-Home orders enacted by Walz on March 27, companies have enacted many of their own guidelines to employees that build on the state’s effort.

The state’s mining industry employs more than 3,300 people and thousands more at spin-off industries.

To date, Northshore Mining and Keewatin taconite have announced idles due to market conditions, but none have been forced to close due to the virus.

Cleveland-Cliffs, which owns and operates United Taconite and Northshore Mining, employees are required to perform a self-assessment before leaving that consists of checking for a “fever, cough or shortness of breath,” according to a handout provided by the company.

Employees not essential to the mine’s operations are working remotely, vendors are limited, meetings and crew start times have been modified and encourages the use of personal protective equipment “consistent with industry best practices” that already include helmets, gloves and more.

Anyone who is symptomatic is not allowed to come to work and required to see medical attention.

So far, Cliffs does not have a positive case of COVID-19 throughout its Minnesota operations.

“Since March, we have been proactive in our measures to keep our employees safe with very good success,” said Pat Persico, director of corporate communications for the company. “Cleveland-Cliffs is and will adhere to mandates or guidelines that are instituted by states where we operate.”

ArcelorMittal USA CEO John Brett has said the company has at least 22 cases of the virus across its national operations, but did not specify whether the locations were among those in Minnesota, according to an April 13 letter to employees.

Areclor is following many of the same guidelines as Cliffs — limiting visitors, working remotely and encouraging medical attention for symptomatic employees. “While all ArcelorMittal USA plants and offices will remain open, our most important asset is our people and in order to continue to live our health and safety values, we are taking measures to keep our families, operations, customers, and visitors safe,” the company said in a statement.

State health officials on Monday said there are now 2,470 confirmed cases across the state, up 114 from Sunday, 143 deaths — up nine. Eight of the nine were residents of long-term care facilities.

St. Louis County totals as of Monday were 52 cases and 10 deaths.

The county has the second-most deaths in the state behind Hennepin County with 80. Ramsey and Winona counties also have 10 fatalities caused by the virus.

Increased testing has been at the forefront of the Walz administration’s strategy as it simultaneously moves to try and reopen parts of the economy.

The governor said Monday that he hopes to see the state move toward his 40,000 weekly testing goal as soon as this week, but data from health officials show daily testing remains well behind pace, peaking at 1,433 last week.

Testing at potential hotspots, including employees at congregate settings like mines, could be among the state’s priorities if and when testing rates are ramped up. Walz said Monday that it’s part of his vision and would allow health officials to catch cases, quickly trace and start to develop a baseline for the community.

“We should drop into Minntac and be able to test everyone who is there on the trucks and everything that is happening,” he said. “That gives you some assurances, and then once we have a baseline on that, knowing that when people show up symptomatic, we’re testing them as they come through the door.”

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