A St. Louis Park nursing home has paid the state's largest fine for a COVID-related workplace safety violation following the death of a beloved caregiver last May.

Sholom Community Alliance paid $27,100 in fines after David Kolleh, a manager in the facility's memory care unit, died from the coronavirus as it spread in the home, newly released inspection files from the state Labor Department show.

The nursing home's penalty included a $25,000 citation for failing to deploy an adequate respiratory program for workers, a sum nearly four times the maximum $7,000 penalty per serious violation. Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MNOSHA) inspectors determined the facility's failure "caused or contributed to" Kolleh's death.

Two executives with Sholom dispute the conclusion that Kolleh caught the virus at work and said management did everything possible to provide adequate protective gear to its hundreds of workers in the early, chaotic days of the pandemic.

Dean Salita, a senior partner with Schmidt & Salita Law in Minneapolis who chairs the worker compensation section of the Minnesota Association for Justice, said he could only remember a few other cases before the pandemic hit where MNOSHA issued fines as steep as the penalties Sholom paid after Kolleh's death.

"It just doesn't happen very often," Salita said. "I think [the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry] and OSHA are on high alert to keep things safe, frankly. ... This will wake up employers to be even safer, if they can."

During the pandemic, MNOSHA also issued two $25,000 penalties to meat producer JBS USA for worker deaths allegedly related to COVID-19. Those cases (one from May and another from June) are being contested.

The Minnesota Department of Health has reported 568,243 cases of suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic's start, including 1,569 cases announced Sunday. The state reported seven new deaths Sunday, bringing the fatality toll to 7,079.

A vibrant personality

Kolleh was among the first 5,000 people in Minnesota to be diagnosed with the viral respiratory illness and among the first 750 to die from its complications.

The 61-year-old Eagan man was a Liberian immigrant, a husband and a father of 13 kids. When the pandemic hit Minnesota, he was working with residents in Sholom's Hodroff Pavilion for Memory Care at Roitenberg Family Assisted Living Residence in St. Louis Park.

Those who knew Kolleh say he cared for his residents like they were family. He was known for his colorful outfits, big smile and vibrant personality. As the virus spread, Kolleh set up videoconferencing so many families could stay in touch with loved ones.

His wife, Joetta, who did not return messages for this story last week, said Monday that she has worked to keep her anger in check following David's death on May 18, 2020.

"The anger can't bring David back," she said. "I was angry from the beginning. I was really angry. But what can the anger really do? I'll just be affecting myself more. I'm just trying to stay calm so that I don't get another situation added to what I have already, healthwise."

Kolleh tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on April 24 at Regions Hospital. Earlier that week, he'd been given an N95 respirator to wear while working at the Roitenberg memory-care unit, but he was not given a medical evaluation or proper fit-testing, according to OSHA inspection files and interviews with Sholom executives.

Management adopted a COVID preparedness plan as of March 5, 2020, that said Sholom executives understood the importance of fit and training with N95 respirators to filter out airborne pathogens.

A month later, staffers were provided cloth face coverings to wear on duty. MNOSHA says the first memory-care patient tested positive for COVID on April 10, 2020, but Sholom Community Alliance Chief Operating Officer Ann Thole said the first positive case in the memory unit didn't surface until 10 days later.

Thole said Kolleh and the rest of the staff were equipped with N95 respirators on April 20, after the first memory-care unit resident tested positive for COVID.

"[Kolleh] was not being protected by an effective respiratory protection program when the first resident tested positive for COVID-19 and this likely caused or contributed to [Kolleh's] exposure," the MNOSHA inspectors concluded.

By paying the fine, MNOSHA said Sholom agrees with the agency's assessment that Kolleh's death was work-related.

However, Sholom CEO Barbara Klick said no one really knows for sure how or when Kolleh acquired the virus, especially since he worked in at least one other similar facility.

"We had an unknown, invisible enemy," she said. "We had no way of knowing where it was. And we had little tools to fight it."

MNOSHA cited Sholom for $25,000 for failing to provide an adequate program to protect workers from respiratory exposures, which directly "caused or contributed to" Kolleh's death. The state agency also cited the nursing home's owners for $2,100 for failing to report a work-related fatality.

Neither violation was judged "willful" by OSHA, which is why the financial penalty was not higher.

"The death of David Kolleh was an incredibly difficult experience for all of us. He was a very beloved man, not just in this community," Thole said. "He was an amazing individual."

Other complaints, penalties

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a surge of complaints and questions about workplace health hazards. As of March 31, MNOSHA had performed 203 inspections related to COVID-19 and issued 169 citations.

Inspection sites ranged from hospitals and auto repair shops to restaurants and construction areas. Case details aren't made public until after the cases are fully resolved.

For cases with penalties, the average initial proposed fine of $3,600 was settled for an average of $2,300, a Star Tribune review of the closed cases shows. The penalties grow with the seriousness of the infraction, as documented by the MNOSHA inspectors.

Besides Sholom Community Alliance, two other nursing homes have resolved MNOSHA fatality investigations.

Centennial Gardens for Nursing and Rehabilitation, in Crystal, paid a $3,500 penalty after failing to report last April that its administrator was hospitalized in what MNOSHA said was a work-related incident. The death didn't trigger the fine.

North Ridge Health and Rehab, in New Hope, paid a $1,500 fine for failing to report a work-related death that same month. All told, the OSHA report said 102 workers at North Ridge through mid-May 2020 tested positive.

"The employer was following the recommendations from local health authorities, thus no citations are being recommended on their actions taken to prevent COVID-19," the MNOSHA inspector concluded.

Joe Carlson • 612-673-4779