COVID-19 confirmed in an Iron Range mine

A truck leaves the United Taconite Thunderbird Mine in Eveleth Wednesday afternoon.

EVELETH — An employee of an Iron Range mine tested positive for the coronavirus, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 reported within the six taconite operations in Minnesota.

Cleveland-Cliffs and the United Steelworkers union on Wednesday confirmed an employee tested positive at United Taconite, which consists of a mine in Eveleth and processing plant in Forbes. The company and union said an unspecified number of other employees are quarantined as they await test results, yet Cliffs said operations at the mine are not being impacted.

Pat Persico, a spokesperson for Cliffs, said the employee had been “out of the workplace” before returning to the site where they felt symptomatic. “The person did go home and subsequently tested positive,” she said.

John Arbogast, a representative for the Steelworkers, confirmed the employee had been away from the mine, reported back to the plant, and began feeling sick and went home. He said the union was alerted about a positive test on July 5 and Cliffs worked with United Taconite on contract tracing.

“We urged the company to be conservative — get them out of there and get them tested,” he said. “We don’t need this to spread through the facility. I think we did a good job.”

The United Steelworkers met with Local 6860 leadership earlier this week to assist Cliffs on its contact tracing efforts aimed at figuring out who the employee was exposed to before and after their shift. Arbogast said the union turned the information over to the mining company - “as many names as we could” - in an effort to stop the virus from spreading through United Taconite.

Mining companies across the Iron Range implemented protocols early in the coronavirus pandemic that included sanitizing, social distancing measures, masks in certain areas and gloves. ArcelorMittal reported positive cases in their facilities in April, but the locations were unknown at the time.

Arbogast said this is the first known COVID-19 case at an Iron Range mine and the priority for the union and company is to prevent a widespread outbreak that could force any plant closures. Three of the six local mines are idled or operating at a reduced workforce due to the economic toll of the virus, with United Taconite and Arcelor’s Minorca Mine being the only two to avoid cutbacks to date.

“Hopefully it's just this one isolated case,” Arbogast added. “That’s best we can do on both sides.”

Cliffs: United Taconite isn’t a hot spot

Minnesota Department of Health officials treat large employers like mines and food processing plants the same as congregate care facilities, defining them broadly as “a place where many people spend eight hours or more in relatively close proximity to each other,” according to a state spokesperson.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, in responding to a late April question about testing at large employers amid an outbreak at a JBS pork plant in Nobles County, said testing at potential hot spots, including large employers, could be among the priorities with increased testing numbers in order to obtain a baseline.

Health officials are targeting hot spots, including a recent one in St. James near Mankato, as well as previous outbreaks in food processing plants.

Persico, a Cliffs spokesperson, said the company is not anticipating a hot spot at United Taconite, citing the protocols and preventative measures in place.

The state has protocols in place when a positive case is identified.

“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.,” MDH spokesperson Doug Schultz wrote in an email in April. “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).”

Community transmission on the Iron Range

Cases in Minnesota have continued to increase and Minnesota Department of Health officials said Wednesday that the seven-day testing positive rate has increased to 4.4 percent. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called it a “big jump in a short time,” but that it could be attributed to targeted testing.

Minnesota reported 463 news cases and eight new deaths on Wednesday. St. Louis County, with a population around 200,000, now has 196 confirmed cases and 16 deaths, including one new fatality from the virus Wednesday.

As of the end of June, St. Louis County submitted 16,216 swabs to test for the coronavirus, or 81.4 tests per 1,000 population, according to data from the Minnesota Health Department. About 1.1 percent of the swabs tested positive countywide.

St. Louis County officials on Tuesday reported that more than 74 percent of cases through June occured in Duluth, most of which were found in long-term and assisted-living facilities that had outbreaks, according to information from the Minnesota Health Department made available to the Duluth News Tribune via a data practices act request.

Also on Tuesday, St. Louis County reported 15 new cases of COVID-19, the largest single-day increase in the county including Duluth, cities on the Iron Range and the Bois Forte Reservation. Officials also said that they saw a peak number of people getting tested this week after the Fourth of July weekend and those results will not be known for several days.

Despite the majority of cases being in the southern part of St. Louis County, there are an increasing number of people becoming infected in northern communities including those on the Iron Range. “We don’t have a lot of July data yet, but we do have more cases outside of Duluth than within,” Linnea Mirsch, director of St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, told the Mesabi Tribune on Wednesday.

Most of the cases initially were travel-related or resulting from outbreaks in congregate settings predominantly in Duluth. “But now, we are seeing widespread community transmission,” Mirsch said. “We have cases in every commissioner district, in both urban and rural areas throughout the county.”

Mirsch said that health officials are noticing a trend of more people between the ages of 20 and 29 becoming infected in communities.

The latest details on the spread of the coronavirus comes several weeks after the state began to reopen bars, restaurants, hair salons and movie theaters, among other businesses. The increase in cases also comes at a time when the state and county has improved its access to testing.

St. Louis County officials provide daily data, Monday through Friday, on the COVID-19 outbreak reports which include monthly information from the state Health Department and additional age distribution, gender and cases associated with long-term care facilities. The county has refused to release more specific information, citing privacy concerns. But officials decided to provide information to the DNT due to the size of Duluth and reducing the risk of identifying individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The concern from officials is that releasing such data “may create a false sense of security in communities outside of the city of Duluth,” according to the St. Louis County Health Department. “Additionally, it could cause some people to hesitate to be tested, or those who have been confirmed positive may be less forthcoming with contact tracers regarding who else they may have exposed to the virus.”

Mirsch told the Mesabi Tribune that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the number of people infected with COVID-19 could be 10 times higher than the number of laboratory confirmed cases. Data shows that there are asymptomatic carriers of the virus among the highest risk populations and that leads her to assume an even greater prevalence of asymptomatic carriers within the general population.

The St. Louis County Health Department encourages everyone to continue following the recommendations from the CDC and MDH:

· Stay home as much as possible.

· Stay at least 6 feet from other people if you are in public places.

· Wear a mask.

· Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

· Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

· If you are 65 and older or have certain underlying medical conditions, stay at home and avoid situations where you could be exposed, including travel.

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