Alberta plans to open COVID-19 vaccination clinics at meat-packing plants across the province as early as April 20 or sooner, starting with a pilot project at the Cargill operation near High River.
Dates and times for these clinics will be determined by timing of the province's Phase 2C vaccination rollout and vaccine availability, Alberta Health Services (AHS) confirmed Thursday.
The Cargill meat packing plant — which has about 2,000 employees and processes around one-third of Canada's processed beef supply — once had North America's largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single site.
The plant is now facing another outbreak that had been linked to 88 cases as of Thursday. Of these, seven are active and 81 recovered, the province said Wednesday.
The vaccination pilot clinic will operate for three days and aims to vaccinate about 2,000 employees.
"It provides an opportunity to deliver vaccine to a very high-risk group of essential workers at their place of work," ," Dr. Brent Friesen, medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services, told CBC on Thursday. "We're hopeful that as a result of bringing the vaccine to them, we're going to see high rates of vaccination among them and that they'll be protected … against further cases of COVID."
Cargill clinic a partnership
Friesen said AHS is partnering with the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association and three primary care networks — Calgary Rural, Mosaic and Highland — to roll out the Cargill clinic.
Vaccinations at the plant's clinics will be provided by occupational health nurses who will be employed by Cargill.
It'll open in conjunction with Phase 2C of the province's vaccination plan, AHS says.
Phase 2C is projected to launch in April and May provincewide, and widens up vaccinations to several new groups, including residents and support staff at eligible congregate living and work settings at risk for large outbreaks.
Community doctors like Adam Vyse, who operates a family practice in High River, also want to get involved.
"We're going to show up to help where we can," Vyse said. "We'll do whatever we need to do."Cargill said in a statement that vaccines are voluntary, but any employee who wants one will get one.
'They're at higher risk'
AHS said it hopes to expand the pilot to other meat-processing plants, which have proved dangerous for workers in Alberta during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An outbreak last spring saw at least 950 employees at the Cargill facility — nearly half its workforce — test positive, as well as hundreds more in the broader community, and was linked to three deaths.
The plant was hit with a second outbreak in December that's still going on.
"We've seen from the first wave to the second wave, meat-packing plants have been the epicentre of outbreaks," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Now with the more transmissible variants, it could become a nightmare if we don't vaccinate the people in those plants."
Thomas Hesse, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 — the union that represents the employees at Cargill — told CBC News in January that vaccines needed to be made readily available for meat plant workers.
"In a Cargill or a JBS or other manufacturing facility in Alberta, there'll be a couple of thousand workers in a big box still working in relatively proximity," said Hesse told CBC News in January.
"These are essential workers. They're at higher risk. This is clearly an occupational disease. Many of them want to have access to a safe vaccine."
Cargill faces proposed class-action, RCMP investigation
Cargill is facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with Cargill employees over the massive outbreak that started in April 2020. They allege the company operated without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings.
The RCMP also confirmed in January that it had opened an investigation into the death of Cargill worker Benito Quesada after his daughter, Ariana Quesada, filed a formal complaint asking police to investigate potential criminal negligence. It is believed to be the first police investigation into a workplace COVID-19 fatality in Canada.
The allegations have yet to be tested in court.
In addition to the Cargill plant north of High River, current outbreaks at meat-packing plants in Alberta include Cargill Case Ready in Calgary, Olymel in Red Deer, Lilydale Sofina Foods in Edmonton, and Sunrise Poultry Processors in Lethbridge.