Glass-manufacturing company Viracon has been identified as a hot spot for COVID-19 cases in Steele County, having a minimum of 80 of the 115 confirmed cases in the area according to Steele County Public Health. (Press file photo)

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Steele County spiked to 115 as of Tuesday, with glass-manufacturing company Viracon identified as having a minimum of 80 of those cases.

“Obviously I am concerned about it,” said Amy Caron, Steele County Public Health director, who has been working with Viracon for the last three weeks to contain the outbreak. “Any kind of spike in our community has us concerned, and obviously some of these employees live outside of the county.”

The increase in employees testing positive at the manufacturing plant has meant several employees’ household members also contracted the virus, but Caron says that was expected by health officials.

“We are seeing a number of household members of employees testing positive, but that is not surprising,” Caron said. “That is one of the reasons why our number is going up, but Mayo Clinic is also doing more widespread testing.”

Over the last three weeks, Caron said that she has been coordinating with the administrative team at Viracon to set up proper procedures to contain the virus. She said that the company is doing its own contact tracing and that, from what she has been told, it is requesting any employee who had potential exposure or is at medium risk to a positive case is to self-quarantine for two weeks with pay.

“That is not something we can enforce, but from my understanding it is what the company has elected to do,” Caron said. “I also recommended that the company shut down a couple weekends ago for 24 hours to do a deep cleaning and sanitization and they chose to shut down their whole weekend shift.”

Caron said that based on the information Viracon administrators have relayed to her that she is confident they are taking all the appropriate steps to contain the coronavirus.

“From my standpoint of working with the company, I think they have done a lot of practices to protect their employees,” Caron said.

The People’s Press has been contacted by several Viracon employees who said that they felt unsafe reporting to work due to the number of COVID-19 cases at their workplace as well as the lack of transparency from upper management to line employees. One person said that employees are feeling “torn” between their fear of the virus and the fear of losing their jobs.

While Caron said does not know what the specific protocols are for the company when it comes to sending workers home who may have been exposed to the virus, those who test positive for COVID-19 fall under federal protection.

“If they test positive and are put in quarantine they must be paid those two full weeks,” Caron said. “That is a federal law.”

According an email from Jeff Huebschen, a spokesperson for Apogee Enterprises, Inc., the parent company of Viracon, Apogee and its associated business locations “moved proactively” to protect the health and safety of their employees while remaining operational.

“In recent weeks there has been an increase in positive COVID-19 cases in the communities surrounding our Viracon factory in Owatonna and in our workforce which comes from those communities,” Huebschen wrote. “We have contact-traced all employees with symptoms and based on employee interviews, we do not believe the virus is being transmitted at Viracon.”

While Huebschen said that the large facility provides ample room for effective social distancing to prevent the spread, the Rice County Public Health director told that county’s Board of Commissioners Tuesday that though several cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported at a number of Faribault manufacturing facilities, there have been no significant “clusters” in Rice County factories.

Huebschen said that additional safety precautions including health interviews, temperature screening and increased workplace disinfecting have been put in place at the Owatonna facility. He added that employees on quarantines are receiving an additional 80 hours of paid time off and that any employee who is uncomfortable reporting to work can use their unpaid leave of absence with full medical benefits.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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