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Local initiative centers on targeted COVID-19 testing

A number of Austin organizations, Mayo Clinic Health System, as well as a business from Albert Lea are coming together to enhance testing for COVID-19 for its employees.

Officials announced the plan, Community Health First, Thursday in a joint Zoom news conference.

The plan revolves around a voluntary testing program at Hormel Foods, Quality Pork Processors and Select Foods in Albert Lea for employees and their families. Mayo Clinic Health Systems in both Austin and Albert Lea will help facilitate the actual testing through the plan.

The announcement comes after it was reported Friday by the StarTribune that over 200 cases have been positively diagnosed within the Hormel and QPP plants. 

Hormel Plant Manager Clint Walters said currently around half of the 1,850 employees at the plant have been tested and that there have been 80 positive cases with 19 having recovered, leaving 61 active, though he added the company is expecting that number to drop by close to 20 over the weekend after those employees return to work. Walters expects that number to sit at 40 come Monday.

Next door, at QPP, half of their 1,300 team have been tested with 90 active cases and 100 having recovered, according to Nate Jansen, president and CEO of QPP and Select Foods, where there are 47 active cases out of 500 employees. Eighteen have been reported to have recovered.

“Since before our first case, we’ve had weekly meetings with employees, anticipating at some point and time this would happen — COVID-19 cases brought into our facility that we would need to deal with,” Jansen said.

According to Julie Bartkey, public information officer for the Minnesota Department of Health, as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday there have been 316 total confirmed cases between the two plants since the start of the pandemic; however, a separate breakdown of the two plants was not available.

The Community Health First plan will include multiple stages featuring education, prevention, screening and ensuring that those who are exposed to the coronavirus are quickly identified, quarantined and have access to community health care, according to a release issued prior to Thursday’s conference.

This testing comes with experience built by Mayo Clinic Health System, who in the early days of the virus coming to Minnesota successfully set up drive-thru sites at its health system sites in southeastern Minnesota.

“The good thing about this is we have a lot of experience starting our sites,” said Dr. Mark Ciota, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin. “We worked all the kinks out of the systems, so it works really well. We’re replicating what’s been working at those other sites.”

Ciota also said that Mayo will be distributing data as it is being received to add another level to the goal of further prevention.

Included in this plan is a pilot program for conducting testing across multiple weeks, versus single-day mass testing.

According to Thursday’s release, Hormel is making it’s KEEP COVID-19 OUT! Initiative available to organizations, businesses, retail and food service establishments, including communication and educational materials that are translated into 10 languages. Likewise, QPP has similar material, protocols and screens in place.

For much of the pandemic, Mower County held relatively steady at the lower end of the spectrum; however, numbers have spiked in recent weeks. As of Thursday, the MDH confirmed 30 new cases, bringing the total to 604 in the county since March 19 as well as two deaths.

That spike includes the spike seen at Austin’s plants.

“As you’ve seen, cases in Mower County have increased,” Walters said. “Hormel is Austin’s largest employer, and the number of cases in our plant have risen at the same time.”

In neighboring Freeborn County, they have 200 cases and no deaths related to COVID-19.

It is believed by county health officials that the rise in numbers is in large part attributable to those people sharing living areas.

“I’m seeing about half and half,” said Pam Kellogg, community health division manager of Mower County Public Health. “At the very beginning it was from traveling and now it’s known contacts and unknown contacts … community spread.”

Both Walters and Jansen indicated that the big push in trying to keep COVID-19 contained is the informational aspect of it, as well as being proactive in the procedures they’ve implemented. These steps have included social distancing protocols, enhanced screenings at work and on the plant floor and frequent push to disinfect daily. 

These steps include emphasizing the importance of safety measures at both the beginning and end of the work day for employees.

“The same behaviors we’re exhibiting in the workplace are the same behaviors exhibited in their homes and where they live,” said Hormel Vice President of Quality Control Richard Carlson.

However, at this time testing within these plants remains volunteer only.

“Our approach is that if there are team members that are concerned, feel like they’ve been exposed or want peace of mind are being tested,” said Katie Larson, director of Human Resources at Hormel Foods. “Anyone who has contact with a team member, we’re already making that testing available.”

Officials expect the effort to remain in place for as long as needed.