Nurses, contact tracers responding to Olymel pork plant outbreak in Alberta

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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.

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 Tuesday.

"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.

"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."

The health agency is continuing to support Olymel's efforts to remind staff to follow public health orders, Kipling said.

"We are also working with community partners to provide support and education to employees and their families, including connecting individuals to family physicians, isolation assistance, and other social supports as required."

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