The federal women’s prison in Waseca has the most inmates infected with COVID-19 of any federal correctional institution (FCI) in America. In fact, nearly half the inmates throughout the entire federal prison system who are actively infected with COVID-19 are located at FCI-Waseca.
As of Thursday, 125 out of the 756 total inmates at FCI-Waseca were infected with COVID-19, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In the national federal prison population, a total of 262 inmates were reported to have COVID-19, meaning FCI-Waseca inmates made up 48% the entire national share. This is out of a total of 134,000 federal inmates in BOP custody.
FCI-Waseca has by far the greatest number of actively infected inmates in the country — FCI-Pollock in Louisiana has the second-largest share, with 30 out of 1,300 total inmates infected. Waseca County, where FCI-Waseca is located, has the highest per capita case rate of any county in the United States, with 40 daily cases on average, according to a database created by the New York Times. The database is compiled of information from local, state and federal health departments as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This disproportionate share of COVID-19 infection among inmates is not shared among FCI-Waseca staff, only two of whom have tested positive for the virus. Among BOP staff nationwide, however, the infection rate is higher than that of federal inmates, with 230 total staff members infected with COVID-19 out of 36,000 nationwide.
The onslaught of infections among inmates at FCI-Waseca comes a year after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking the release of 14 FCI-Waseca inmates with medical conditions to home confinement. The lawsuit alleged prison authorities didn’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provide adequate healthcare for inmates sickened by the virus.
The lawsuit was thrown out in March by a federal judge, citing a lack of authority to release the inmates.
Despite the prison’s extraordinarily high COVID-19 positive rate, Waseca County Public Health Director Sarah Berry said the idea that Waseca County’s very high rate of community spread is because of the prison is not true. Adjusting for the prison population still yields a very high rate of COVID-19 spreading among Waseca County residents, she said.
Moreover, Berry said many FCI-Waseca inmates are likely being infected as a result of community spread, rather than the other way around.
“A facility that has residents that are not mobile generally are at risk from things that are coming from other places,” she said. “So when our county community cases are high, that increases the risk for our inmates.”
Federal correctional institutions are set at operational levels based on their facilities’ COVID-19 medical isolation rate, the vaccination rate of their inmates and staff, and the transmission rate of their respective counties. FCI-Waseca is at “Level 3,” the result of having a medical isolation rate of 7% above, a facility vaccination rate of less than 50% or a community transmission rate of at least 100 per 100,000 residents over the last week.
Being at Level 3 means FCI-Waseca must institute social distancing in all areas of the facility, require face coverings at all times and implement daily temperature checks and COVID-19 symptom screenings for anybody entering the facility.
FCI-Waseca communications representatives could not respond to requests for comment before press time.
Legal wrangling has put the COVID-19 vaccine requirements for large employers on hold for an unknown amount of time, but many local employers are preparing anyway.
The specific mandate, announced by the White House on Nov. 4, is a vaccination requirement issued to employers of 100 or more employees by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the regulatory agency of the United States Department of Labor. The requirement, which would give the unvaccinated workers of large employers the option of being vaccinated by Jan. 4 or wearing a mask and undergoing weekly COVID-19 testing if they choose not to vaccinate, was temporarily “stayed” — or put on hold — in mid-November, after district courts struck down the order.
The mandate would also require employers to pay employees for the time it takes them to get vaccinated, and to provide sick leave for employees recovering from side effects.
Preparing for the mandate
Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier said many local businesses are putting policies in place so that if and when the mandate goes into effect, they’re ready. He added that the longer the “stay” on the mandate goes on, the more likely it is for the original Jan. 4 date to be changed to a later date.
Aside from health care organizations like Allina Health and AdaptHealth Minnesota, few companies are planning to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees.
According to Julie Rethemeier, vice president and director of public affairs and advertising at Federated Insurance in Owatonna, Federated does not plan to mandate that all employees get vaccinated.
“We have chosen vaccine education and a $1,000 vaccination incentive as the best approach for our organization,” Rethemeier said. “If the OSHA ETS [emergency temporary standard] is upheld in courts we will comply with testing and masking requirements.”
Conagra Foods, the Chicago-based consumer packaged goods holding company that owns Birds Eye — the vegetable processing facility in Waseca — has so far chosen to delay reacting to the mandate or developing contingency plans in case it goes into effect.
“We have not finalized plans specific to the COVID-19 vaccination and testing ETS,” said Dan Hare, senior director of corporate communications at Conagra. “Our priority is to maintain a safe, clean and healthy workplace and we will continue to use the right measures to reduce the risk of infection at the facility, including use of masks and shields, social distancing, promoting good hygiene, enhanced cleaning procedures, and changes to break rooms and conference rooms.”
He added that Conagra encouraged all employees who can get vaccinated against COVID-19 to do so.
Daikin Applied, a multinational air conditioning manufacturer headquartered in Osaka, Japan which employs 1,200 people between three plants in Faribault and Owatonna, has also chosen to delay. According to Aaron Parker, director of communications for Daikin Applied, the company was preparing for implementation of the standard before the stay was issued on the mandate. Daikin responded by pausing implementation until legal challenges are resolved and a clearer path has formed.
“We’re in wait-and-see mode at this point,” Parker said.
Tom Peterson, CEO and founder of Climate by Design International (CDI) in Owatonna, a manufacturer with 150 employees, described an approach similar to that of Federated of encouragement without coercion at CDI’s three Owatonna facilities. Though CDI doesn’t offer incentives for unvaccinated employees who choose to vaccinate — Peterson cited concerns of unfairness to already-vaccinated workers who would be excluded from them — it invited Sterling Pharmacy into its facilities for half a day to give flu and COVID shots to workers that wanted them, in hopes of making the process as convenient as possible. It also continues to highly recommend masks and follow current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and OSHA guidelines on COVID-19, in addition to investing in enhanced air filtration and increasing the amount of outside air in its facility.
As far as preparing for the OSHA mandate, Peterson said CDI is focused on trying to develop data capabilities to keep track of the weekly testing of unvaccinated employees, as well as finding a COVID-19 testing company to partner with to bring down the cost of the tests.
“The mandate as it is written allows the company to not pay for the testing, but the testing is so expensive that if you were to ask an employee to do that, they would be taking a very substantial pay cut just to pay for the testing,” Peterson said. “So in our minds, that’s unrealistic to have the employee pay for that testing, so we would have to take that on as a company.”
Meier guessed most companies would probably pay for the tests themselves if the mandate went through, so as to not alienate their existing and prospective employees in both an already competitive employment market and a workforce shortage. The same logic would apply to any companies thinking about mandating vaccines for their workers.
“Everybody’s in a workforce shortage right now, so it just creates one more piece of the puzzle for employers that are gonna fall under that mandate,” Meier said.
Beyond logistics and the potential cost burden of weekly tests, Peterson said he was concerned that if the mandate went into effect, it would set opposing ideological camps against one another even more fiercely than they’ve already been.
“There’s passionate people on each side of the equation,” he said. “I’m concerned for our company, I’m concerned for our city, I’m concerned for our nation and how much fuel this adds to the fire of division.”
Many Waseca County homeowners have seen their property taxes increase dramatically in recent years, sometimes by double-digit percentages. This year is likely to be no different.
The size of those property tax increases on residential homesteads, though, will not perfectly reflect the 1.92% levy increase adopted Dec. 9 by the Waseca County Board of Commissioners.
This is down from the 2.25% preliminary levy that was approved in September. Commissioner Doug Christopherson announced at the Dec. 9 meeting that since the initial adoption, the county was able to save $56,000 through labor negotiations with the Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, or MNPrairie, part of the county’s human services fund. Commissioners approved a motion to pass those savings onto the levy, which was passed unanimously.
According to County Administrator Michael Johnson, the median market value for a residential homestead is $154,000, up from $143,000 the previous year if it moved with the market. As a result of that increase and the 1.92% levy increase, this median homeowner’s county property taxes will increase by $69.50, or 8.88%, from $783 to $852. As a way of demonstrating that county taxes are mostly increasing because of the market and not because the county government is significantly raising property taxes, Johnson added that if that median-valued homestead stayed at $143,000, that homeowner’s county taxes would actually decrease by $12.70, or 1.46%, even with the levy increase.
Put another way, in order to keep residential property owners’ county taxes level from the 2021 to 2022 levy amid rising property values, the 2022 levy would have to be set at a 5.5% decrease.
The 2022 final levy was set to $17.4 million, up from $17.1 million the previous year. Though the total 2022 county budget is $30.3 million, $12.9 million in revenue comes to the county through non-levy funding sources. Of that total budget, $14.1 million goes toward the general fund, $757,000 toward building, $10.4 million toward public works, $3.19 million toward human services, $1.2 million toward debt service and $600,000 toward ditch authority.
During the 23 minutes Waseca resident Jackie Dickie addressed the Board of Commissioners, she asked many questions about how property taxes funding the county levy were being spent. In addition to questions about if county government had considered firing bad employees to save money or whether it had bargained hard enough with health care providers, Dickie asked repeatedly what the taxes were being spent on.
“If you are asking us to open our pocketbooks again, I would like to know what we’re buying,” she said.
When Johnson replied that public meetings for the levy had been taking place for six months, that the county budget had nearly 2,000 line items totaling over $30 million and that there probably wasn’t time to go over each of them for her at a public hearing, Dickie responded that he was avoiding her question.
Another Waseca resident, Michelle Oswald, questioned why her property tax had increased 48% over the last four years when the county levy had not been increasing anywhere near that much. She clarified that her property was a starter home without any improvements done since her initial assessment.
Johnson’s response was that most of the increase probably had to do with the market determining her house was worth more each year since she bought it in 2016. The rest of the increase, he said, probably had to do with the tax rate for different property types — agricultural, residential, commercial and so on — shifting from year to year as set by state law.
Commissioner DeAnne Malterer said in recent years, the shifting tax rate has shifted the burden more toward residential properties. Commissioner Blair Nelson added that all the commissioners are property owners themselves.
“So, when we’re raising taxes, we’re raising them on ourselves,” Nelson said. “Nobody likes that.”