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Officials: COVID-19 outbreak at North Dakota wind turbine plant may overwhelm system

FARGO, N.D. – Health officials in northeastern North Dakota said Friday they’re worried about having the ability to adequately respond to a cluster of coronavirus cases tied to a wind turbine facility, even as the overall number of positive tests in the state rose dramatically.

Fifteen workers at LM Wind Power facility in Grand Forks have tested positive for COVID-19, and officials were still waiting to find out the results of 424 additional tests that were conducted Thursday. Dr. Steven Weiser, president of Altru Health System, said about 2,500 people may have come in close contact with infected workers.

“We really can’t make any projections, but it certainly has the opportunity to be a very substantial large number,” said Weiser, adding that it has “the ability to overwhelm our health care workers and our health care system.”

A record high of 46 new cases were confirmed statewide Friday, for a total of 97 cases in the last three days and 439 overall. There have been nine deaths in the state due to the coronavirus.

Later Friday, Gov. Doug Burgum said the state would continue charting its own course, a day after President Donald Trump rolled out “guidelines” for states to begin lifting restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus crisis.

Burgum on Wednesday extended an order to keep most businesses closed until at least the end of April in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. He refused to signal when those businesses could restart.

“People are focusing on reopening but the cases are going up,” Burgum said. “Our restart is not driven by a date. We’re going to be driving by data not by the calendar.”

The first-term Republican has said North Dakota is in the “steep upward curve” and “that part of the curve is the hardest to project.”

Burgum has long said the coronavirus was slow to reach North Dakota compared with some other states and may not be as far along as many in “flattening the curve.”

“The only way to have a backside of a slope is to have a peak,” he said, calling that peak and a descent “a moving target.”

Grand Forks is in the same position as many other cities and does not have the capacity to immediately test the thousands of people at risk, Weiser said.

“It’s just the reality of the day. We have a limited number of testing resources at any given time,” Weiser said.

Officials said 638 people have been screened in the state since Thursday, bringing the total number tested in North Dakota to nearly 12,350.

Weiser and Dr. Joel Walz, an Altru physician and the Grand Forks city and county health officer, said it’s too early to tell whether the LM numbers will be comparable to the outbreak at a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which has resulted in 650 positive tests. The plant is one of the largest known clusters of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

“We’re all waiting nervously,” Walz said.

LM has about 880 employees who work in shifts of about 100 to 150 people, Weiser said. Many of the workers are immigrants or former refugees from African countries, officials from the state’s resettlement agency said Thursday.

LM spokesman Tim Brown said the plant will remain closed indefinitely.

“We will provide our employees, our partners, and the community more information on our plans for reopening the facility in the coming days once we have the results from yesterday’s testing,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, the North Dakota Supreme Court said it was extending an emergency order postponing civil and criminal jury trials from April 24 to July 1. Bench trials and hearings are not officially suspended, but judges now have until July to decide whether to cancel or postpone them.

And a new temporary shelter program was announced for homeless vulnerable adults who tested positive for COVID-19, or are showing symptoms, and can’t stay at existing homeless or domestic violence shelters. Department of Human Services’ Chief Operating Officer Sara Stolt said the new shelter is currently serving 12 people and is prepared to expand.