Vancouver Coastal Health says 28 employees at United Poultry Company Ltd., an East Vancouver chicken processing plant, have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
The plant, located at 534 East Cordova Street, has been shut down by health officials.
Dr. Patricia Daly with Vancouver Coastal Health said the authority first became aware of a potential outbreak after a lab test for an employee at the plant came back positive on Sunday, April 19. Upon interviewing the infected person, Daly said her team found out the staff member had worked in the processing plant while symptomatic, prompting a public health team to be sent to the plant Monday.
On arrival, Daly said the team noted that several other workers had symptoms, so they decided to test all 71 staff members present.
That resulted in 27 more positive cases.
"There may be more cases, because there were several other staff members who were reported to be home sick yesterday," Daly said. "So we will follow up on all of the other staff as well."
B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said an investigation is underway into the outbreak and close contacts of the people who tested positive have been notified.
The plant has been shut down, and will remain so for at least 14 more days.
Cause of outbreak still under investigation
Daly said the plant is under the regulation of a federal body, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who has its own COVID-19 guidelines.
She said it is not clear at this time whether the virus was spread through contact during work, or within a break room.
"There was evidence at the plant that employees did have access to gloves and some plastic face coverings," she said. "But we have identified that the plans that were in place were inadequate or were not appropriately executed."
There is at least one other plant owned by the same company will be inspected by Vancouver Coastal Health.
Daly said the company says there is no crossover of staff between the two plants, but it will still be inspected.
Chicken products from the plant still safe, say health officials
Health officials cite the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as saying there is no evidence that food is a source of virus transmission, so there is no recall of chicken products distributed from the plant.
"We don't have any evidence that COVID-19 can be spread from meat and from consuming products like that or from packaging on meat or chicken in this case," said Henry. She reminded people that raw poultry can have harmful bacteria on it and should be cooked and handled properly.
Bill Vanderspek, the executive director of the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board said the outbreak was "one of the worst fears we had" and said he hoped it would be the first and last plant in the province to be affected.
He said other processing plants will be able to take up the extra processing due to the plant closure and that it wouldn't have an impact on chicken availability to consumers.
"There is no shortage," Vanderspek said.
Henry repeated her message that even essential workplaces need to have precautions in place, monitor staff for illness and ensure they are taking appropriate steps to protect people who are working in those environments.