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Crises collide: Flood recovery workers carried COVID-19 to Michigan

LANSING — Contract workers who came to Michigan to help the state recover from a major flood brought COVID-19 with them and may have inadvertently contributed to the ongoing public health crisis, according to state and local officials. 

Nineteen employees of a contract renovation company who stayed at a hotel in Bay County while working in the Midland region have tested positive for COVID-19 since Saturday but have since left the state, Bay County Public Health Director Joel Strasz told Bridge.

Health officials believe “one or two” of the workers were symptomatic before they came to Michigan, and there is evidence that at least one Michigan resident who worked in “close proximity” to them has also tested positive for COVID-19, Strasz said Thursday afternoon. 

He declined to name their employer, citing the ongoing public health investigation, but said that despite recommendations to quarantine here, it appears all of the workers have already returned to their home states of Texas and Florida. 

Officials believe the workers came to Michigan on May 25 or 26, about one week after two dams failed amid heavy rains, prompting floods that displaced 11,000 residents and caused about $200 million in damages to more than 2,500 buildings.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mentioned the new cases in a Thursday morning radio interview on WDET in Detroit, where she discussed her recent decisions to reopen the state economy despite the ongoing threat of the coronavirus, whose spread has slowed considerably in Michigan since peaking in April. 

"We had some people from out of state come in to help, and we are grateful for help, but they brought COVID-19 with them,” Whitmer said. “We were able to quickly track and trace who was impacted by it and try to isolate. We would have preferred if they would have quarantined here in Michigan, but they travelled home."

The public health investigation has not gone quite as smoothly as Whitmer described. 

The local effort was complicated because contract workers who tested positive for COVID-19 spoke little English and appeared to “fear the authorities,” Strasz said. When possible, their managers served as interpreters. 

After several workers tested positive on Saturday, Bay County health officials tried to encourage them to shelter in place so they would not spread the virus further. But several left the state last weekend, and as of Thursday, Strasz says he believes all the workers have now left Michigan.

“They came here because they desperately needed work and they desperately needed money,” Strasz said. “In many cases, they were crowded three, four or five people into a room. When you get that many people crowded in a room who had been working all day, there’s no social distancing taking place.”

With the workers now believed to be out of Michigan, the Department of Health and Human Services is using a federal exchange to share information with other jurisdictions they may have traveled to, said spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin.  

Strasz first disclosed the outbreak Tuesday during a Bay County Board of Commissioners meeting but said new details emerged Thursday morning, including confirmation that nine additional workers had tested positive after the initial batch on Saturday. 

It’s not clear how much exposure local residents may have had to the workers, Strasz said. It’s his understanding the employees were fed breakfast and dinner at their hotel, so may have had little need to visit local stores or restaurants. 

Still, the outbreak “is extremely concerning to us,” Strasz told Bridge, noting daily case counts in Bay County had been falling until Saturday. The workers who tested positive may not all end up in local case counts and may instead be classified as out-of-state cases, he said.

“It exposes, for one thing, how serious the virus is, and also exposes the fact that the virus hasn’t gone away,” Strasz said. “I know there’s a lot of people who think the virus is over, and it’s not.” 

“And it also exposes some issues that we’ve never really had to deal with here in Bay County, especially with out-of-state migratory workers. It has exposed the necessity for us as an organization to respond more effectively.” 

Bay County reported 11 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday — its highest number since May 21 — and has confirmed 345 positive tests overall since March. In all, Michigan has had nearly 60,000 cases since March.

In neighboring Midland County, where the contractors worked, officials who feared the virus could spread in temporary shelters for displaced residents coordinated with the National Guard to test 2,435 people for COVID-19 during the last weekend in May. 

Almost all of those have been processed, and there have only been five positive tests "associated with the flood response in some regard," Midland County Health Director Fred Yanoski told Bridge.

Midland County has reported 18 new COVID-19 cases in the past four days but only 101 overall since March.

"I certainly agree that our community was at a much higher risk due to the congregate settings (shelters) and the influx of volunteers from both inside and outside the state," Yanoski said. 

In her Thursday morning radio interview, Whitmer said she also remains concerned that ongoing protests against racial injustice and police brutality could also inadvertently spread the virus. 

"It's a very real possibility," the governor said, urging residents to remain cognizant of the public health crisis if they join the demonstrations.

"As I participated in a march last week in Detroit, the vast majority of us were wearing masks. We couldn't always maintain 6 feet of distance, but there was ample use of hand sanitizer and we were refraining from the hugs and high-fives and handshakes we usually greet each other with."

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