Harford County schools and the company managing construction of the new Havre de Grace Middle/High School building shut down the site earlier this week after learning a contracted worker tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The worker died the next day.
The school system was notified by Hess Construction on Monday that the contractual employee working at the site tested positive for COVID-19 and a decision was made that day to shut down work at the site effective Tuesday, said Jillian Lader, a spokesperson for Harford County Public Schools.
On Tuesday, school officials were notified of the employee’s death, she said. The employee was last on the work site on March 31.
“As an added precaution, a collaborative decision was made between HCPS and Hess Construction, to shut the worksite down for 14 days,” effective April 7, Lader said.
Michael Hess, the executive vice president for Hess Construction, which has a consulting and managerial role in the job, said the infected man worked for SA Halac Iron Works, a metalworking company based in northern Virginia.
The worker was performing a job that did not require much exposure to other people, but nine to 10 others whom he could have had contact with are now self-quarantining, Hess said.
Hess said the worker, a resident of Prince George’s County, had worked on the site from March 26 until he started showing symptoms March 31. He was tested when the symptoms appeared, but the results took five days to come back.
“As soon as we got wind someone was showing symptoms, we removed them from the job site,” Hess said. “As soon as they got a positive test, we shut it down.”
The worker died shortly after that positive test was returned, Hess said. Other on-site workers have been tested as well — though they have not shown symptoms — and the rest of SA Halac’s workers on-site self-quarantined when their colleague’s symptoms first appeared, Hess said.
Messages left with SA Halac Iron Works seeking comment were not returned as of 4 p.m. Friday.
There were about 100 workers on the site, Hess said. Many of the contractors he has spoken with said they would not redeploy them to another job out of an abundance of caution. Neither the infected man nor others who were working on the school’s construction went to other job sites, Hess said.
“Luckily it was not someone who came in contact with a lot of people,” Hess said.
As of Friday, the state was reporting 110 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Harford County, but no deaths among Harford residents.
Prince George’s County, where the worker was from, has 1,716 confirmed cases — the most of any jurisdiction in Maryland and approximately a quarter of the nearly 7,000 confirmed cases statewide. Of Maryland’s 171 deaths due to the respiratory disease, 42 are Prince George’s County residents.
Ground was broken in April 2018 on the $80 million combined Havre de Grace high and middle school building off of Lewis Lane. The 250,000-square-foot building was projected to open in time for the 2020-21 school year.
Construction considered essential work
Construction has been exempted from Gov. Larry Hogan’s mandatory closures of many businesses in the state in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
It was deemed essential because it ties into so many other industries and services — healthcare, education and numerous others, according to Mike Henderson, the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Baltimore, a trade association representing the non-union construction industry.
“It touches just about every part of our economy … it is just so expansive,” he said.
Although he could not speak to the specific case in Havre de Grace — which he called “heartbreaking” to hear — Henderson said that risks of spreading the virus on construction sites can be mitigated. Construction companies have been staggering shifts and taking workers’ temperatures as safeguards, he said.
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The virus does not make construction sites inherently more dangerous places to work, as they are affected the same as other workplaces.
“[The risks are] the same as they would be in any environment. That is why social distancing and hand-washing is taking place,” Henderson said. “The guys are trained to practice safety eight hours a day on the job; this just adds one more element to it, but it is not going to make doing the work less safe.”
While construction is considered essential, local health departments do have the ability to take action against essential businesses, including construction sites, “unable or unwilling to operate in a manner that does not pose an unreasonable risk of exacerbating the spread of COVID-19,” under an executive order signed by Hogan earlier this week.
Under the order, the county health official can order the business to change its practices or demand its closure. A failure to comply with the health officer’s order could result in a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
As of Friday, there have not been any businesses or construction sites in Harford County shut down for not following CDC protocols, Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department, said in an email.