RED DEER, Alta. — Alberta Health Services says it is responding directly to a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected hundreds at a hog slaughterhouse where almost two-thirds of workers have at least one other job outside the plant.
Spokeswoman Heather Kipling said Tuesday nurses and contact tracers with experience in communicable disease control are helping manage the outbreak at Olymel's pork plant in Red Deer, Alta. The health agency is also arranging for ongoing testing to monitor for asymptomatic spread.
Alberta Health has been notified of 343 cases linked to this outbreak. Of these, 200 are active, 142 recovered. One worker has died.
Olymel said late Monday it was shutting down the hog slaughtering, cutting and deboning plant indefinitely because it believed it could no longer be operated safely and efficiently.
The outbreak started in November, but cases began to rise significantly starting Jan. 20, the company said.
"It's important to remember this particular plant has had sporadic cases — one or two a at a time — for several months and the processes that have been put in place at the plant site had been very successful in preventing any kind of spread," chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday.
"In fact, there had been no cases for some time and there was consideration on closing down that outbreak."
Hinshaw said it seems the more recent spike in cases was the result of a "confluence of events" outside the plant.
The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour demanded a meeting with the premier and provincial labour minister to ensure workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks are closed down before workers die or infections spread.
“I’m going to remind them that their job is to protect the public, not to protect the profits of corporations at the expense of workers or the public," Gil McGowan said in a statement.
"I’m going to demand that they do their damn jobs."
A news release from the labour group included a link to a letter that Alberta Health Services wrote to Olymel last Thursday, which said on-site testing suggested one in five workers could be infected.
The letter by Dr. Mohammed Mosli, medical officer of health for the central zone, noted about 60 per cent of Olymel staff were working at least one other job outside the plant and those other employers would have to be notified of positive cases.
It said Olymel staff also working at health-care facilities could only work at one site until the pork plant's outbreak was declared over.
The letter said staff were to be reminded to follow isolation requirements for close contacts.
"Failure to obey the chief medical officer of health orders could result in individuals being fined $1,200 or more."
Alberta Health Services said inspectors visited the site multiple times since the outbreak started.
"No violations were noted by AHS during our visits to the site, which would have necessitated a closure order. Any recommendations made by AHS for further improvements to existing measures were acted upon swiftly."
Hinshaw said local health officials have been offering to help in a way that's culturally appropriate and addresses any potential language barriers and are making sure workers know financial support is available for those who need to isolate.
"There is an intensive outreach happening right now to make sure that all of those individuals who are impacted know all of the supports that they have available to them."
Thomas Hesse, present of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said Monday the union was relieved as it had been calling for the closure of the plant for weeks. He said there was no word on whether the 1,850 workers will be paid while the plant is closed.
The union is investigating if workers qualify for existing government assistance programs, he said.
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021
The Canadian Press