An outbreak reported recently at the Tioga Gas Plant involved out-of-state contractors who were building out a $150 million expansion of the Hess facility, according to information heard during the Governor’s weekly COVID-19 press briefing.
The Tioga Tribune identified the cases as being from out-of-state when it asked Gov. Doug Burgum if he has considered bringing back a quarantine for travelers from COVID-19 hotspots, to ensure workers from Sunbelt states aren’t bringing the virus to places in North Dakota that didn’t have many cases up until now.
“We have thought about travel quarantines,” Burgum said, “and continue to take a close look at that.”
Burgum listed a funeral in California as among recent events that resulted in new coronavirus cases in North Dakota, but added that there have not been enough out-of-state cases to warrant a 14-day quarantine on travelers.
The state does not count positive COVID-19 cases where an individual lists another state as the primary address and has refused to say how many such cases there are. That makes it difficult to tell what the COVID-19 picture really is in the Oil Patch, where two-week on, two-week off workers are common.
Additionally, during the summer construction worker often may involve out-of-state workers, such as the Hess expansion in Tioga. The Aurora Wind Farm is also under construction.
Burgum told the Williston Herald he did not know if any of the COVID-19 cases at the Tioga gas plant were listed in the state’s daily totals. He did say those who listed a different home state than North Dakota would not be reflected in the daily report.
“If they listed North Dakota, we contacted them, and they are required to isolate,” he added. “Local public health should be in contact with those individuals.”
It’s not known how many cases were reported on the job site for the Tioga Gas Plant. The North Dakota Joint Information Center said the number of Tioga cases would be confidential under state law. Neither Hess nor the contractor would say how many cases there were.
Hess had announced last year that it would be expanding the Tioga Gas Plant this summer. The company had projected then that the work would involve around 300 workers at peak, according to a Tioga Tribune article.
It’s not known how many of the workers ended up being out-of-state, though the company did say at the time that the contractors would all try to hire as many local workers as possible.
A Hess spokeswoman said the positive COVID-19 cases at the Tioga job site were identified by its contractor, Ohmstede Industrial Services, an EMCOR Industrial Services Company based in Texas that provides maintenance, construction, engineering, manufacturing, and fabrication services to industry in North America.
Norman Thornton, president of Ohmstede, said that the health and safety of employees, customers, and partners is the “top priority.”
“At the outset of the pandemic, Ohmstede Industrial Services implemented safety protocols consistent with best practices and CDC guidelines,” he said. “Any employee who tests positive for COVID-19 is required to self-isolate, along with those who have come in close contact with an individual who tests positive, and we have contact tracing protocols at all of our worksites. We will continue to work with our partners to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our team.”
Hillary Harmon, manager of communications for Hess Corporation, said that all relevant areas at the Tioga gas plant were “deep cleaned based on enhanced cleaning protocols.”
“In addition, health screenings for workers prior to entering work sites have been and continue to be conducted, and modified work plans continue to be used to enhance social distancing.”
Hess has implemented several COVID-19 prevention protocols, Harmon added, based on the current recommendations by public health and regulatory agencies. She was asked to elaborate on what those practices are, but has so far not answered.
North Dakota, meanwhile, conducted almost 500 tests over the weekend in Williston, and has planned another testing event for Thursday in Tioga at the High School.
Out of the 486 tests in Williston on Sunday, Burgum said there were 15 positives. These were reported in Tuesday’s numbers, and the governor said that is a 3 percent positive rate.
“We will be doing contact tracing on them, as we will all the positives,” Burgum said.
Cases in Williams County have been steadily rising, with 15 more cases reported Monday. Williams County has had 92 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic tracking began in March. Fifty of the cases have been since July 7 — more than half the total number of cases in just 8 days. Statistics on how many cases are in Williston and how many in Tioga are not available to the public, the state’s Joint Information Center said.
Burgum, noting the spike in coronavirus cases in other states, urged residents to stick with the “basics” that he’s talked about since the beginning of the pandemic — washing hands, remaining socially distant, wearing a face mask when social distancing isn’t possible. These are all easy to do and largely free, the governor said, and they are the best way to ensure that businesses can remain open in North Dakota and that children can physically return to schools in the fall.
Burgum also suggested that reopening is not behind the surge in cases in other states, because the dates do not match up with the spike in cases. Rather, he suggested, noting there are a lot of unknowns, a more likely explanation is that hot temperatures have driven people to seek air-conditioned spaces. COVID-19 is easier to catch in confined spaces.
“One of the things we can do in North Dakota is take it outside,” Burgum suggested. “Whatever activity you have is probably safer to do outside. Meetings, phone calls, small groups, think about taking advantage of that and adding the Great North Dakota outdoors into our North Dakota Smart game plan.”
Regardless of whether it is reopening or some other unkown factor, North Dakota has been reporting more COVID-19 cases lately in more counties. Monday, the state reported 108 positive cases. Its highest report on record was 134 on May 21 — but 96 of those were later reported as inconclusive due to a lab issue.
Burgum said the state is conducting a lot more tests now compared to what it was doing then. The rate of positives is much less now than it was then.
On Tuesday, 55 new cases of coronavirus were reported statewide, with 32 recoveries and one more death, bringing the total number of deaths to 88.
Williams County, for the first time, reported more cases than Cass County, which had 11.
The state’s active case count is now at 720 — higher than in May, Burgum acknowledged, but the lower positivity rate means the state is “still on the right track and doing a great job.”
Forty-two individuals are hospitalized across 16 counties, 11 in an ICU unit. There were also positives in 25 of 53 counties, which is the widest spread in terms of a single day so far.
The age of COVID cases has been dropping, Burgum said, which he suggested may explain why hospitalizations have not risen by a corresponding amount. The course of the disease is usually less severe for younger individuals.
Burgum said he has reactivated the state’s work force group, however, just in case the state would need more frontline healthcare workers.
Among the state’s recent coronavirus cases were some that traced back to a large Fourth of July party, and 10 that traced back to travel to a sunbelt state for a funeral.
Several small clusters were related to bars, others to socializing on a sports team, and yet another occurred in a bank.
“This is about making sure we don’t get complacent in North Dakota, and we can avoid falling into the situation that other states are with rapidly rising rates,” Burgum said, noting that most people are catching COVID-19 either from someone in their household or from someone at work.
“Think about your own pod, the people you hang out with,” he said.
If even one person is not observing precautions, it presents a risk to everyone in the group.
“Make sure across all your group that you are being North Dakota smart,” Burgum said.