OSCODA – Kalitta Air, in partnership with District Health Department No. 2, and Alcona Health Center, are all working on a three-pronged approach to handle recent COVID-19 infections that have occurred at the company, which is located on the Oscoda Wurtsmith Airport.
So far three employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to officials with DHD2.
DHD2 Health Officer Denise Bryan said COVID-19 testing for the company’s more than 1,000 employees is being offered, and will include testing for active infections as well as antibody testing to see whether employees may have had an infection but recovered. Kalitta Air employs around 1,000 workers, who conduct heavy aircraft maintenance and air freight operations at the Oscoda facility, which is one of the region’s largest employers.
Bryan would not give demographic information on those where infected with the disease, but just confirmed they were Kalitta employees.
The large-scale testing efforts by the agencies came after it was announced May 12 that an employee has tested positive for the coronavirus and may have exposed other workers to the virus. Since that time the two other employees have tested positive for COVID-19, said Bryan.
Don Nolan, director of heavy maintenance at the Oscoda facility, said the first infected employee last worked May 6 in the Hangar 8 building and the test results came in Tuesday, May 12.
“We have worked with DHD2 and gave them a list of 16 people through contact tracing to be tested,” Nolan said in a press release.
Officials with DHD2, and District Health Department No. 4, said that the public should be aware of possible low-risk exposure locations in Oscoda and Alpena.
“This alert is intended to make the public aware of locations that may have allowed for low risk exposure, therefore making individual identification difficult. Individuals who were present at the listed locations, at the designated times, have the potential for exposure,” stated the release.
Those exposure locations include:
• Auto Value in Oscoda Township, on May 2 in the late afternoon
• Walmart in Alpena on May 4 from 8 p.m. to close.
Nolan said Kalitta Air has worked hard to keep any infections from spreading. To mitigate any exposure at the workplace, He said the company has made it mandatory that all employees were surgical masks in all hangar shops and offices for the last three weeks after COVID-19 cases in Iosco County recently skyrocketed.
“The masks are supplied free, one per day, and then thrown away,” he said. “We have used over 20,000 masks so far and some people have their own masks.”
Other mitigation efforts include thermo scanning of employees upon entrance to the facilities. He said antibacterial soup and hand sanitizer are made readily available in all areas and that massive cleaning efforts have taken place in the hangar buildings.
“We had all the hangar and shops’ common areas professionally sanitized 30 days ago at about $70,000,” Nolan said. “This gave us a good zero baseline. We now have purchased that equipment and product and did Hangar 8 in house today (May 12) once notified as contractors are unavailable on short notice.”
Nolan said the company has also increased its janitorial staff by 50 percent and has switched to bleach water to wash surfaces. He urged any employee of the company to stay home if they are feeling sick and to use their sick time.
“We are, and have been, taking this deadly serious from the beginning and the teamwork has gotten us this far,” Nolan said.
Bryan said within 24 hours of the first individual’s confirmed infection with COVID-19, DHD2, in partnership with the company and Alcona Health Center, set up drive through testing locations at the airport to begin testing all employees who opt to be tested.
Public health coordinated with drive through health coordinators, two healthcare providers, and they can move people through faster than others. She said last week there were more than 150 employees who were tested, with more being tested throughout this week. She said she hopes to get a minimum of 90 percent of workforce at the company to opt-in and get tested, which that initial testing to be completed by early next week.
Bryan said the testing is only one of a three-pronged approach in the effort to keep the spread of disease in the company. She said the second is contact tracing through interviews of the family of those who may be infected with COVID-19 from the company. This has already been done with the individuals who have tested positive, she said.
Third, DHD2 has created survey that will be given to employees that asks travel history, whether the individuals ever had symptoms of COVID-19, their medical history, and other items that can help DHD2 create a data set that may be useful in combating the disease in the future, Bryan said.
She said after the testing, which is done by gathering a sample on nasal swabs that are pushed far into the nasal cavity, Kalitta Air is going to set up testing for antibodies, which is a blood test and can tell if a person had an infection and got over it, Bryan said.
She said other public testing locations will be included in the community soon, including on at Ascension St. Joseph Hospital. She said the upshot of the whole situation is that if you are feeling sick you should not go to work until you know you are not contagious or passing a sickness – regardless of the sickness – to other people.
“Sick people cannot work, they cannot risk it, they need to isolate at home and evaluate whether one day is enough to stay home,” she said. She said anyone who feels sick should follow up with their primary care doctor before going back to work.
Bryan said she did not foresee that COVID-19 anxiety would create a denial factor in people, much like heart attack victims may deny the symptoms that they are actually suffering a heart attack.
“That is a more common factor that we even care to say,” she said. “Anyone with sickness should just stay home; don’t keep showing up to work.”
Bryan said if this were to happen six weeks ago, they could not get the amount of tests that were needed to test a group as large as Kalitta.
“We are pulling test kits in from the state, to get 1,000 kits, I just been on the phone non-stop, and we have been having phones ring off the hook,” she said.
Bryan said she hoped that employees of the company would do the right thing and get tested. And do the right thing if they feel sick.
“Do the right thing,” she said. “If you are sick, stay home. If you’ve been exposed, show up for the voluntary testing and if you’re given the instruction to isolate or quarantine – no one in and no one out – please do it. Make that sacrifice so we can stop that virus.”