GRAND FORKS, N.D. – When workers at one of the biggest companies in this Red River border city raised concerns about safety in March during the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic, officials didn't send health inspectors to check it out.
They sent the CEO of their regional economic development agency, who reported back that the company assured him everything was fine.
A month later, Grand Forks is one of the Midwest's largest COVID-19 hot spots, with 128 confirmed cases — including 11 Minnesota residents — linked to LM Wind Power, a major manufacturer of wind turbine blades. The North Dakota Department of Health has issued an executive order requiring all 900 LM employees to quarantine in their homes until April 30. The plant closed on April 14 and will reopen at an undetermined date after a deep cleaning.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has opened an investigation and is working with the company to implement a safety action plan, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, Grand Forks County reported 11 new COVID-19 cases for a total of 154, a 7.7% increase over the previous day. With about 9% of North Dakota's population, Grand Forks County accounts for about 23% of the state's COVID-19 cases.
Now employees and residents are questioning whether the city and the company could have done more to prevent a major outbreak. Leaving the early response to a businessman was "ridiculous," said Jim Schothorst, who retired in 2018 after more than 30 years as a city health inspector and training consultant.
"He's got no expertise whatsoever in the field of environmental health," said Schothorst, who also questioned why the early response was coordinated by the mayor's office rather than the city's Public Health Department.
The factory on the city's western prairie is "a COVID-19 bomb," said David Thompson, a Grand Forks attorney who has been investigating the outbreak and posting his findings on social media. "I really don't think that's exaggerating. I think it's accurate, sadly."
After a cluster of LM employees tested positive for the disease in mid-April, the state's rapid response team launched a major testing effort, testing 426 employees and contacts — and getting positive results from 30% of those tested, compared with the statewide average of 4.3% positive tests.
On Thursday, state and local health agencies, along with the North Dakota National Guard, will hold a mass testing event for area residents, not limited to LM employees.
The effects of the LM outbreak will be felt in the community for quite some time, said Thompson, a former newspaper reporter who was the Democratic candidate for state attorney general in 2018.
"This thing is going to bounce around for a while, biologically and sociologically and politically," he said.
General Electric Co., which owns LM Wind Power, said it's working with state and local agencies to get the plant operating safely again.
"Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees," a company spokesman said. "In line with the state quarantine order, we are temporarily closing our LM Wind Power facility in Grand Forks for at least two weeks to conduct an extensive disinfection process, and we will continue to pay employees as usual during this period.
"We are working in close partnership with the mayor's office, North Dakota state Department of Public Health and city and state public agencies and greatly appreciate their support. We will continue to support our employees and monitor their condition as we determine when and how we can restart the plant safely."
Employees raised concerns
Larissa Boushee doesn't work at LM anymore. On Monday, she quit after a year making $15.94 an hour to wrap bushings in glass fiber.
"I felt they didn't take care of us," Boushee said. "You guys waited until there was outbreaks. That's when you decided to clean and really pretend you care about us."
In mid-March, as awareness of the pandemic began to spread, Boushee began to worry that the conditions at the plant weren't safe, she said. Some employees were showing up to work sick, she said, and social distancing wasn't being practiced. For example, she said, employees often were crowded into a small break room. There were also crowds at the machines that dispense protective gear at the beginning of each shift for employees who work with glass fiber and other sources of chemicals and particulates.
Boushee raised her concerns with supervisors, she said, but got no useful response. So, on March 23, she called the city Health Department and registered her complaint about social distancing. Three days later, she filed a complaint with OSHA.
In an interview Wednesday, Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown said the city acted promptly to check out the situation. E-mails released by the city show that an LM employee e-mailed the city the evening of March 22, expressing concern about the company's "indifference to recommendations made by health professionals," saying the company ignored suggestions such as staggering work hours, allowing some employees to work from home and ceasing to hold large company meetings.
By 6:30 the next morning, city officials were working on their response, the e-mails show. When Boushee called later that day, e-mails show, city officials began responding to her complaint within 15 minutes.
Brown said he chose to communicate with LM through Keith Lund, president and CEO of Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., because Lund already had a strong working relationship with top company officials.
"That was the top, and that's where the message needed to go," said Brown, who praised the company for its response once the COVID-19 outbreak was confirmed by testing.
The city Health Department didn't send any inspectors to LM, said Debbie Swanson, the city's director of public health. Brown said the city has no authority to enforce workplace safety. That's OSHA's job, he said.
Meanwhile, other employees became concerned as rumors of sickness spread. Manasse Kasimbira, who has worked at the plant for four years as a mold closer, said one of his team members got sick at the beginning of February and was gone for two to three weeks.
"We keep asking, 'Where is this guy?' " Kasimbira said. "They tell us, 'He is home, he is OK.'
"When we asked the manager of the plant, he told us, 'Don't talk about this. You're scaring people. If we hear you talking about this again, we're going to send you home.' "
Shocked, upset, terrified
One LM employee found out Friday that they had tested positive for COVID-19.
"I was shocked. I was upset. I was terrified," the employee said, coughing constantly during a phone interview. The employee asked not to be identified, in fear of being fired for speaking up. One of their children is now showing signs of illness, they said.
At one point, the employee said, LM put out some disinfectant spray for employees to use, but when it ran out no more was offered.
Sometime in March — the employee wasn't sure exactly when — LM began taking the temperatures of employees in their cars as they arrived at work.
"They were not taking the temperature correctly," the employee said. "They didn't touch our skin, just kind of waved [the thermometer] in the air." Sometimes, when employees showed a fever, the testers said it must be from having the car heater on, the employee said. Workers would be asked to pull over and sit with their window open for a few minutes, then their temperature would be retaken.
Kasimbira confirmed that, adding that the people taking the temperatures weren't medical personnel. It was a receptionist, a person from human resources and a security guard, he said.
Kasimbira, a native of the Congo, is among many African immigrants working at the plant. He also worries about losing his job for speaking out, he said. But he said he's doing it because he believes it's his duty as an American.
"I'm just an employee," he said. "But I'm a father [to co-workers], I'm a grandpa for them. Those who know no English, those who don't know what to do, I speak for them.
"I came from Africa as a refugee," he said. "I wanted to come to a country where there is law and justice.
"Our country where we came from, you can die. They don't care," he said. "My children were born here. We will not let our children die for something that can be safe."