As businesses and services begin to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions at every level are surfacing about how best to move forward while at the same time protecting people’s health.
People are growing frustrated and even angry, and rumors and misinformation are spreading.
Koochiching County Public Health Director Kathy LaFrance and Supervisor Derek Foss this week provided information and facts about the laws, processes and guidance in place for handling positive COVID-19 cases, and for businesses reopening.
Last week, Lori Lyman, spokeswoman for Packaging Corporation of America’s Boise paper mill, shared how the local mill has put protections in place for both workers and the community. She did not reply in time for this report about rumors circulating about the mill and COVID-19.
LaFrance and Foss said guidance for employers working through the pandemic and returning come from the Minnesota Department of Health, Gov. Tim Walz’s order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the state Department of Labor and Industry.
In addition, those three sources provide guidance for and rules about what employers should do if an employee tests positive.
As one of the largest employers in the community, LaFrance said county staff who can work remotely are doing so to lessen the number of people in the offices, and that protocol are in place on decontaminating and sanitizing work spaces should someone test positive.
Foss said the state offers information and webinars online to guide employers. And, he said different employers can have different protocol in place, that’s even more restrictive than state guidelines.
Each company and agency should have protocols established in how the work space and other areas are decontaminated and sanitized for safety of other workers and for the return to work by people who tested positive.
Who has tested positive in a work place and the community is protected information, Foss said.
“It would be up to the company and also up to the discretion of the said person who tested positively,” he said. “It’s all protected information under HIPAA, (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and also the Minnesota Data Practices law and several other Minnesota laws protecting health information.”
News stories about companies announcing closures because an employee tested positive are unusual, he said, but must be based on permission of the employee.
“Anything that could potentially identify a person is protected under health data, and it’s even more strict in smaller areas where there is more chance of identifying somebody,” Foss said.
Foss and LaFrance said they’ve fielded lots of questions seeking information about where in the county the people who tested positive live.
That information is not public, they said.
Foss said the public gets confused when it hears differing information made public in some cases and places and kept private in others. Canada, he said, apparently reveals the community in which a positive test comes from, but that’s a whole different county with its own laws.
LaFrance said people are afraid of COVID-19 and it’s understandable. “The unknown is very scary, and so they want to know who it is so they can stay away from them,” she said.
But people need to rely on the protocol the Minnesota Department of Health has in place when someone tests positive.
When the testing laboratory has a positive result, it contacts MDH, which interviews the person who tested positive very quickly about who they have had contact with, LaFrance said.
MDH has guidance on what determines close contact, as it considers who else should be notified because they may have had contact with someone who has COVID-19, whether they should monitor for symptoms or be tested.
LaFrance said that “close contact” does not mean just passing someone on the street, there is a distance and time frame involved.
How effective the contact tracing process is depends on how forthcoming the person who tested positive is with information about their whereabouts and contacts, she noted.
Foss said MDH revised its guidance about two weeks ago, calling for the testing of people with symptoms, in addition to those hospitalized. To get tested, someone with symptoms should contact their health provider, who will screen them to see if they should be tested. He also said MDH and CDC websites offering information on screening.
“Nobody is going to get tested if they don’t have symptoms,” LaFrance said. “The test is only valid for that one moment in time. Somebody gets tested, they’re negative, they go to the store, out in the community, and maybe their positive later on because they’ve come in contact with someone (who is positive).”
“Testing isn’t done on a blanket scale; it’s limited by the rules the state put in place and that’s for people who are symptomatic,” Foss added. “A positive test doesn’t change the treatment. If you can manage symptoms at home, stay at home. It’s a viral illness that doesn’t have any treatment or vaccine, yet.”
LaFrance said testing people who have no symptoms now is a waste of time and tests. “And we don’t have tests to waste,” she said. “There is still not enough tests to be testing who ever, whenever, so we need to make sure they’re used efficiently for people who need them.”
Foss noted that the MDH website reflects the number of positive cases of county of residence. This means positive cases are reported in the county the person’s primary residence is located.
Asked about how people are reacting to the presence of COVID-19 in the community, LaFrance said human nature is playing a role.
“There is just some situations where people have such strong beliefs, and a support system that helps them continue with those beliefs, that it’s not possible to change them,” she said. “People who think they are right, even though they have wrong information and want to force it on others — there’s nothing we can do other than provide the factual information and let people make their choice on who they will listen to.”
Impacts restrictions caused by the pandemic to businesses and tourism on the local economy are a large and concerning, they said, but people must be and feel safe at the same time.
LaFrance and Foss also urged people to be aware that the decisions in reaction to the pandemic are being made by different levels of government: Federal officials closed the International Bridge; state officials put the Stay at Home order in place; and local officials are developing preparedness plans for facilities and agencies of which they are in charge.
“Nobody really understands who is supposed to be enforcing some of these rules,” she said noting county Public Health is not a regulatory agency. “It’s hard for people to understand. None of us have experience with this and hopefully it won’t happen for another 100 years.”
LaFrance reminded officials that MDH and CDC provide guidance, “they are not saying you have to do this or have to do that, they are just recommendations, and they may be slightly different and it’s up to government agencies how they will use that info to implement their plans.”
Foss said MDH is still developing guidance on beaches and pools that is expected be released very soon.
The public health officials urged people to pay attention to how the pandemic evolves.
“Long range planning is almost impossible, because we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know if we will get a really big surge of cases, until does or doesn’t happen, we won’t know,” she said.
“All we can do is continue to know what the recommendations are from the people that know: the scientists who do the research, the statisticians that compile the data, and make our best judgment as things get closer.”
So much is unknown and still being learned about COVID-19, making it important for people to stay up to date on facts. She said the MDH and CDC websites are easily navigated to find out a vast amount of very current information about the pandemic
As information and data changes, they said one thing has not: The best protection against COVID-19 remains to be social distancing, hand washing and using a face mask in public.
Protections against COVID-19 were quickly put in place for staff of Packaging Corporation of America’s Boise Paper mill and its surrounding community, a local mill spokesperson told The Journal last week.
Lori Lyman told The Journal the mill protections included immediate discontinuation of all non-essential business travel, limitation of visitors and vendors, and prohibiting anyone into the mill that has traveled by air in the last two weeks, including employees.
The company also took additional steps to assist employees, she said.
“Employee financial barriers to staying home were eliminated when PCA offered temporary pay replacement to employees who may be sick or quarantined due to the coronavirus,” she said.
She said the mill adhered to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for sanitizing the mill, and developed additional cleaning and disinfecting check sheets, which are implemented several times per shift.
The mill contracted with a company using viral disinfecting equipment and has since bought its own equipment to continue the process, Lyman said.
Other protections in place include making face masks, along with comfort straps, available to employees; posting maximum occupancy signs in break rooms and elsewhere in the mill; and distributing COVID-19 information booklets to employees.
In addition, Lyman said employees who can work from home are doing so.
To help support the community, PCA has given financial support to local schools, United Way COVID-19 Relief Fund, Backus Community Café, Falls Hunger Coalition, and Salvation Army, she said.
“We have also donated critical PPE (personal protective equipment) and spent thousands of dollars supporting our local restaurants,” Lyman said. “We continue to watch the needs in our community and will respond accordingly.”