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National Guard mobile testing unit comes to Prairie du Chien
Guard at PI in PdC for COVID testing
WISCONSIN NATIONAL GUARD troops were in Prairie du Chien on Tues-day, May 5 to investigate a potential COVID-19 out-break at Prairie Industries. In all, more than 300 employees were tested as part of Governor Evers plans to aggressively expand testing in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Pennekamp

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN - Vehicles lined up Tuesday in the parking lot of Prairie Industries' east plant at Industrial Boulevard in Prairie du Chien, as 320 companywide employees were tested for COVID-19. 

As of Tuesday at 11 a.m., a total of nine employees from Prairie Industries' north facility had tested positive for the virus, according to Prairie Industries and NuPak President Jeff Panka. 

One of 11 Wisconsin National Guard rapid response specimen collection teams conducted the individual nasal swabs at the mobile testing site, with support from Crawford County Public Health and Crawford County Emergency Management. The National Guard team, temporarily based at Volk Field in Camp Douglas, consisted of 28 citizen soldiers and airmen wearing full personal protective equipment during the process, said Major Roger Lovelace. 

Results from Tuesday's scheduled tests are expected within 24 to 48 hours, said Crawford County Public Health Officer Cindy Riniker. They were taken Tuesday night to an Exact Science Lab in Madison.

Presently, only the company's north plant, impacting around 250 employees on several shifts, is temporarily shut down. It was a decision that was made "out of an abundance of caution," said Vice President of Operations Tina Stoeffler in an announcement Friday. 

"We don't believe there's been any risk of cross contamination (to our other five plants), as we've been very careful about not bringing people back and forth between them," said Panka, at a media briefing Tuesday morning. "We've constantly updated our protocols to keep things safe for our employees."

Prairie Industries, a contract packaging (retail, liquid and display) and manufacturing services company, has three plants in Prairie du Chien: north, east and south, and one in Lansing, Iowa. Panka said the south factory, in fact, remains open making sanitizers, which are used mostly in maintenance of hospital facilities across the country, a project that arose from coronavirus-related demands. 

Its sister company, NuPak, has two food packaging facilities in Boscobel. 

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 involving a Prairie Industries employee was reported by a neighboring county, where the person resides, on April 24. 

Panka said the belief is that the person contracted the virus from outside the plant.

"We have a large number of diverse employees who come from multiple counties around us," he said, noting Grant County in Wisconsin and Clayton and Allamakee counties in Iowa. 

Prairie Industries was proactive, on April 24, with the initial test results, to suspend second shift for the week of April 26-May 1, to protect against any further contact risk on this crew.

However, on May 1, two more positive cases were confirmed. Company officials stated that these second shift employees were the last in the building more than a week prior, which is beyond the 72-hour requirement for possible contact tracing. 

Riniker said, it was a joint decision to request the Wisconsin National Guard for testing of all employees. 

"I'd say we're getting through 25-30 (tests) per hour in each lane," Major Lovelace noted Tuesday. "It's going well, but we'll be here as long as it takes today."

Panka explained that all laid off employees will receive unemployment pay for the current week, since the north plant's closure Monday. Plus, the second shift workers will get unemployment for the previous week they were off. 

"After that, they will go into the two-week program through the government," he said. 

Panka is uncertain when the north plant could reopen, as that depends on test results. 

Both public health and Prairie Industries are doing contact tracing, including tracking of where employees take breaks, who smokes, etc., Panka added.

Riniker said, if anyone tests positive, that public health will determine when they may return to work. If they test positive with no symptoms, they will need to quarantine for two weeks. If they have symptoms or are hospitalized, it would, of course, be longer. 

In the meantime, all of the company's human resources programs that would dock employees for missing work have been suspended. Also, Panka said, anyone who feels uncomfortable being at work, especially due to underlying health concerns, has been assured they can reach out to administration. 

Never having been through anything like this before, Panka stated, "It's been fairly trying from the standpoint of you're dependent on everybody doing their part to keep all employees safe. We're trying to keep a business running at the same time."

He also addressed the financial impact of having positive cases at Prairie Industries: "Obviously, shutting down the north facility isn't going to do anything positive for us, but with the increase in sanitizer needs, that has helped. Most of all, the safety of our employees is the most important thing."

As of Tuesday, Crawford County reported 258 negative test results, in addition to seven residents who had tested positive-including three of whom had recovered before Prairie Industries' outbreak. That number depicts all tests given in Crawford County up to this point of the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday's mass testing reached more than that amount in just one day (though not all Prairie Industries employees are residents of the county).