At least one employee at each of the three operating Iron Range mines has tested positive for COVID-19 this month.
Two employees at Cleveland-Cliffs' United Taconite in Eveleth and Forbes have tested positive for the illness while ArcelorMittal's Minorca Mine in Virginia and U.S. Steel's Minntac in Mountain Iron have each reported one employee with a positive test result, union and company officials confirmed to the News Tribune on Wednesday.
The two employees at United Taconite tested positive as of Wednesday, said Dan Hill, president of United Steelworkers Local 6860 president and a United Taconite millwright.
"COVID's here," Hill said. "We've been preparing since March."
Cliffs spokesperson Patricia Persico did not share details of any Cliffs case "out of respect for an individual’s privacy," but said the company has been aggressively cleaning work environments and following COVID-19-prevention guidelines and the facilities will continue to operate.
Hill said it's too early to know if there will be an outbreak at the United Taconite facilities, but said the nature of the work allows for employees to easily spread out.
"It's not like a meat factory or a meatpacking plant," Hill said. "I'm not shoulder to shoulder with my partner, but I am sometimes hand in hand with my partner or a crew ... we have members that sit in cabs of trucks for 12-plus hours, and one can only wipe down and clean down a cab so well."
At Minntac, one employee tested positive for COVID-19, the union learned Tuesday, while another who was in contact with the employee was sent home out of caution, said United Steelworkers Local 1938 President Steve Bonach. The employee with COVID-19 worked in the pellet plant where crews were mostly working on their own, Bonach said.
U.S. Steel spokesperson Meghan Cox did not answer the News Tribune's emailed questions about the Minntac case, but said the company has been doing extra sanitizing, social distancing and other precautions to prevent the spread within its facilities.
"Companywide at U.S. Steel, our confirmed COVID-19 cases have been significantly below the national averages," Cox said in an emailed statement. "If we become aware that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, we follow CDC, state, and regional guidelines and employ contact tracing and self-quarantine measures as needed for our personnel."
At Minorca, an employee who last worked July 6 reported Tuesday they tested positive for COVID-19, an ArcelorMittal spokesperson said Wednesday. The employee is currently quarantined at home.
"Co-workers sharing this work area are being notified and their plan for further action is being evaluated," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Sanitization of possibly affected areas has begun and will continue."
One other employee who came into close contact with the infected employee has been self-quarantining and a number of other employees with symptoms have been waiting 7-8 days for test results, said Harold Anderson, president of United Steelworkers Local 6115 and an electrician at Minorca.
"We're all trying to do the best we can to try to contain this thing because we're pretty small outfit," Anderson said. "We have a 330 (member) bargaining unit, and it wouldn't take long to take out a whole maintenance staff or take out a whole operations crew."
The three other Iron Range mines and pellet plants have been idled for several months as the pandemic reduced demand for steel, but ArcelorMittal-managed Hibbing Taconite and Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining in Babbitt and Silver Bay are set to restart in August while U.S. Steel's Keetac in Keewatin has been "indefinitely" idled.
Minntac faced more than 250 layoffs as it reduced production during the pandemic, but Hill of Local 6860 said the production lines were getting ready to fire back up this weekend and only 50 mine pit employees remain laid off. They are expected to be called back when the mine is fully up and running, Hill said.