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Midland flood relief workers say bad working conditions got them sick with COVID-19

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Dozens of out-of-state workers who traveled to Midland to help with flood recovery allege that close living quarters and inappropriate working conditions contributed to the spread of COVID-19 among their ranks.

They asked to meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a July 8 letter in which they denied they “brought COVID-19 with them” to Midland, as Whitmer contended in a June 11 interview with WDET-FM.

There's no proof they didn’t contract the virus after arriving in Michigan, according to Resilience Force, a group representing the workers. The workers — Venezuela and Colombia natives who traveled from Texas and Florida — arrived “healthy and ready to rebuild” but company policies allowed COVID-19 to spread among their ranks, the group said.

Television crews watch the Tittabawassee River rise in downtown Midland to an estimated 10 feet over flood stage on May 20.

"We are worried about the way that feeds into the narrative of immigrants as COVID spreaders," Resilience Force Director Saket Soni said of Whitmer's comments.

It's not clear how many, if any, of the more than 100 workers were tested for COVID-19 prior to traveling to Michigan, according to Resilience Force and the Bay County Health Department. 

Instead of helping to stem the pandemic in Michigan, the companies employing the workers "created conditions that allowed the deadly coronavirus to easily spread,” Soni said in the letter signed by more than 30 workers.

Workers were packed two to a bed and four to a room at a Bay County hotel, traveled in crowded vans, were denied proper precautions at work and forced to leave the state by their managers instead of quarantining, Soni said. 

Eighteen workers tested positive for the virus while still in Bay County, other employees tested positive after arriving back in Texas and Florida, and a total of 50 people experienced symptoms, Soni said. At least two people were hospitalized upon their return south.

The workers arrived in Bay County on May 26 and left on various dates through June 11.

Resilience Force has come up with a set of executive orders that would guarantee protections and health access for workers and hopes the state will take action against the companies they allege are responsible, he said. 

"The governor led on COVID response," Soni said. "This is her opportunity to lead on worker health and safety.”

Whitmer is reviewing the letter, her spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

Based on phone calls related to the cases in Midland, the state's understanding is workers arrived in Michigan with the virus, Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said.

Bay County Health Officer Joel Strasz had his own challenges dealing with the company responsible for the workers, and he did push back on the idea that workers contracted the virus in Michigan. At least one of the workers told the health department through an interpreter — the group's manager — that he or she was symptomatic before coming to Michigan.

“From the evidence that we put together, it seemed that this person very well could be a carrier,” Strasz said. “But we can’t tell that with 100% certainty.”

The workers were brought in in late May to help restore flood-damaged buildings in Midland, particularly the Mid-Michigan Medical Center in Midland. They were contracted by SERVPRO of Saginaw, which had subcontracted for the workers through BTN (Back to New) LLC in Texas, according to Soni. 

They helped to clean the hospital basements, including the morgue, of water, debris and mold, Soni said. 

Soni alleged they were not given proper equipment or testing measures while on site, but SERVPRO said masks were provided to all employees on the job site and daily health screenings were conducted. 

It was those screenings that eventually led to the identification of symptomatic employees, their removal from the job site and eventual testing, said Kim Brooks, a spokeswoman for SERVPRO. 

The more than 100 workers who stayed in Bay County and worked in Midland were contracted through SERVPRO, but employed through BTN LLC in Texas, Soni said.

SERVPRO of Saginaw advised BTN of its COVID-19 response plan, but the responsibility to comply with it was ultimately left to BTN, said Brooks. 

"Subcontractors are responsible for the overall health, safety and welfare of their employees when not on the job site; this includes their transportation and lodging," said Brooks. 

BTN did not return a call and email seeking comment.

Without a bilingual volunteer at the department, Bay County struggled to communicate with the affected individuals and had to rely on their manager for translation, Strasz said. The manager gave varying accounts regarding who was infected and whether they were still in Michigan.

“It got heated between us and the management there for a while because we weren’t getting straight answers,” Strasz said.

As positive test results began coming back to the health department, officials attempted to contact the workers but had to go through a manager.

The health department received varying answers when officials asked where a certain worker was and it was often the case that a worker was reported to have left the state when the health department recommended they quarantine.

Strasz said the health department had prepared a shelter in which employees could quarantine, but none of them quarantined in Michigan. 

"We were expecting that the company would foot the bill for the additional days they were going to be there and that was not the position they were taking," Strasz said. 

Soni estimated the company would have had to pay $124 per employee to house them in separate rooms at the hotel. But instead of providing extra housing or quarantine options, the workers were fed misinformation from their manger, he said. 

"He insisted that public health officials wanted them to leave Michigan," Soni said. 

As of Wednesday, Midland County had reported a total of 153 cases and nine deaths, but there was no noticeable uptick associated with flooding or the restoration work that follow, said Fred Yanoski, health officer for the Midland County Health Department.

Midland County set up a mass testing initiative two weeks out from the flood anticipating an uptick in cases, but only five of the 2,400 people tested were positive, Yanoski said. 

The Midland workers' results would not be included in either Bay County or Midland County numbers since they don't live there.

"The investigation largely indicated there was very minimal interaction in the facility they were working in," Yanoski said of the out-of-state workers. "We have not been able to epidemiologically link any additional cases to those workers within our county.”

Soni argued that Bay County should have found other interpreters and that SERVPRO should have intervened to help quarantine employees. 

"These employers had absolutely no sense of responsibility to the broader public health, tried to wash their hands of their employees when they got sick, and are now trying to limit their reputational liability," Soni said. 

Strasz acknowledged there were lessons learned during the ordeal. He said the department knows it needs more bilingual staff and needs to keep an eye out for the welfare of COVID-infected individuals who could easily "slip through the cracks."

The county has made changes inspired by the Midland workers by extending emergency orders to include contractual workers and implementing a quarantine requirement for those traveling from a state that exceeds a 10% positivity rate for the infection.

"We’ve got a duty and responsibility to protect the public health here," he said.