Millions of dollars in construction projects on hold as 312 workers test positive for COVID-19

Black Construction headquarters in Harmon Industrial Park (Photo by PNC Chief Photographer Allan Balbin)

Black Construction has halted work across the entire island with hundreds of the company’s employees testing positive for COVID-19.

The Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services (DPHSS) says Black Construction — a major player in the military build-up  — came forward and self-identified as having a positive case on Oct. 24 just over 2 weeks ago.

That person was a local skilled worker, NOT living in the H-2-B worker barracks.

American Medical Center has been working to test more of the employees since. And this past Friday, the clinic found 22 positives, that’s when they contacted Public Health to ask for their help.

Over this past weekend, over 500 barrack workers were tested and of those, a whopping 312 were COVID-positive.

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Dr. Hoa Nguyen, the head of the Governor’s Physician’s Advisory Group, said: “Of the 312 positive, the overwhelming majority of the workers are asymptomatic…absolutely no symptoms. Then there are about 20 or so, less than 30, that really have symptoms that are very mild. And again most of them are asymptomatic.”

Leonard Kaae, the general manager of the construction giant, says they have close to 600 H-2 workers living in their barracks, plus some 300 local workers. That’s in addition to hundreds more vendors and subcontractors who are now all getting tested.

“We have an extensive testing program that’s ongoing at the moment and we continue to test all of our personnel. And, hopefully, by the time this is done, we’ll have tested about 1300 personnel that are actually employees, subcontractors and/or vendors that are being directly on our job sites,” Kaae said.

Dr. Nguyen, from AMC, which is the lead clinic supporting Black in their testing endeavor, emphasized in this afternoon’s news conference that this is a sequestered group within the compound that has no dealings with the local community.

“This cluster really mainly involves the workers that live in the barracks and the compound. So, it’s not any worker or anyone that goes outside the compound to interact with the local community. So the chance of spreading to the community is absolutely very small to none,” Dr. Nguyen said.

Black Construction says since March, all the workers living in the barracks have been in lockdown and not allowed to leave. In fact, Kaae gave an example of a worker, who is not H2, but from FSM and living in the barracks, who left unauthorized about 3 weeks ago. He was immediately terminated, according to the GM.

But since so many local workers and contractors go back and forth interacting with how is it certain that community spread didn’t occur?

“So when they had a positive, the contact tracing started immediately in-house and we basically isolated the positives and quarantined the rest. And we do the testing up to 8 days so that we’re sure they don’t turn positive…and then they stay in quarantine until they’re done and that’s done for every positive whether a worker in the community or the compound with the H2 workers,” Dr. Nguyen said.

“As it relates to our local workforce, every day everyone gets their temperature checked and they’re questioned in the morning before any work starts. So, if anyone has any symptoms or feels sick, we’re monitoring every person, whether H2B or local including subcontractors that come onto the project sites,” Kaae said.

Dr. Nguyen says the entire Black Construction workforce is in quarantine at this point until testing of all employees is complete. The company says it’s dividing people in three spaces: either COVID positive in isolation, those quarantining as close contacts, and those who tested negative.

All those who did test positive are now isolated in one location in the barracks, with around 4-6 people per room.

With so many infected staff, Black Construction is at a complete standstill, stopping work on all projects as of today [Monday].

“We have a $178 million base housing project at Andersen Air Force Base, we have an $84 million project for the Marines…we have the live-fire range, which is $86 million. We also have the northern district wastewater treatment plant, that’s a $122 million program for GWA. We also have ongoing the 3rd floor at the airport authority … the isolation quarter, it’s ongoing now…. so we’ve got a lot of work here on Guam and the one thing we need to focus on is getting our people healthy and back to work,” Kaae said.

Since this is such a major cluster, Public Health says it’s now reaching out to other construction companies on island to work on proactively testing their staff as well.

There’s no timeline on when Black Construction will clear enough staff to get projects back to work.


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Mai Habib is a radio and television broadcaster and journalist originally from Toronto, Canada. She worked at CTV News and CFRA in Canada for over 5-years, where she was a reporter, anchor and show host. After a brief stop in Canadian politics and the non-profit world, she's happy to be back at the news desk on Guam. Mai is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program and completed her Master's in International Affairs and Public Policy at Carleton University. She is excited to be reporting on Guam's current affairs, legislature and other topical issues.