A coronavirus outbreak at a meat-packing facility in High River, Alta., has led operators to “temporarily idle” processes.
Effective Monday, April 20, employees at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant were starting the process of idling operations, the company said in an emailed statement.
Cargill didn’t specify what it meant to “idle” the operations, nor what it meant for the plant’s employees.
The new processes were announced hours before the chief medical officer of health held her daily COVID-19 update Monday afternoon, when she announced the death of a worker at the plant due to the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said a total of 360 cases of COVID-19 have been identified in workers at the plant, with a total of 484 cases in the surrounding community linked to the outbreak at the facility.
“Not all of these cases are people who work at that plant,” Hinshaw said of the total number of cases of spread within the community.
“Many of these cases live in surrounding communities such as Calgary. Many of the cases identified in the Calgary Zone over the weekend were linked to this broader outbreak.”
Hinshaw said there is a dedicated team working on reducing spread with particular attention on households where there may not be the resources or the space for self-isolation to happen.
“There is a great deal of focus on controlling the spread linked to these networks. However, many of the cases that are currently being diagnosed were exposed up to two weeks ago, before control measures were fully in place. So we will continue to see new cases linked to this outbreak over the coming days.”
When asked if the plant closure came too late, Hinshaw said the plant’s operation is not the only factor to consider when it comes to containing the spread of cases.
“Some of the long-term care outbreaks that have happened in the Calgary Zone — some of the people who worked in those long-term care outbreaks were part of large households where again, it was difficult for people to self-isolate in ways that kept spread from others,” Hinshaw explained.
“Some of the challenges then with those large households were some of the workers at Cargill lived in those same households.”
As soon as cases were identified at the plant, Hinshaw said outbreak measures were put in place at the work site.
“One of the things we need to learn from this outbreak is that we can’t focus solely on a work site. We need to consider the lives and the different parts of people’s day and where they are and where they might be exposed. Because if we only focus on one particular site, it will be very challenging to control spread.”
The decision by Cargill comes as a departure from what employees were told over the weekend. On a conference call Saturday, they said they were assured by Cargill officials that the plant was safe and all safety precautions were being taken. Many employees said they weren’t convinced. Some of them spoke to Global News on the condition of anonymity, out of fear they would lose their jobs or be reprimanded by their employers.
Daniel, who works at the plant, said he fears going back to work.
“I have two daughters and my wife at home. They don’t know what is the risk here,” Daniel said. “The fear is you never know who is sick.”
Sarah is a single mother and worries about the risk to her son.
“I’m terrified. My son has respiratory problems so that makes us at a higher risk. I’ve been having breathing problems, cough, runny nose,” Sarah said. “It’s impossible to keep the place clean while everything is going on. We have fat buildup on tables and that virus can live there longer.”
Joshua is also a longtime Cargill employee and voiced his concerns.
“The PPE is the main reason people are afraid to go to work. They don’t provide us face shields and now it’s too late,” Joshua said. “It’s real scary. In the locker room we are congested, the washroom we are also congested, especially during break.”
The company made changes to its operations early last week, when the number of cases among staff was reportedly 38, according to the union representing the workers.
As a means of reducing exposure and risk, Cargill reduced shifts at the plant, eliminating its second daily shift and offering employees who were healthy enough to work hours on the first shift.
On Friday, the Opposition NDP called on the UCP government to shut the plant down until it could be deemed safe for employees as well as the surrounding community.
“Considering the community-wide impacts of the virus, we encourage all employees to get tested for the COVID-19 virus as now advised by Alberta Health Services as soon as possible,” Cargill said in its statement.
“This was a difficult decision for our team who are operating an essential service and are committed to delivering food for local families, access to markets for ranchers, products for our customers’ shelves and jobs for local employees.”
Cargill said its employees are the “everyday heroes of the food system,” adding the company cares deeply about them.
“To prevent food waste, we will process approximately three million meals currently in our facility as quickly as possible,” Cargill said.
“We greatly appreciate our employees who are working to complete this effort.”
Cargill said Alberta Health Services approves and supports all public health protocols the company has taken in light of the outbreak, which included telling employees who are sick not to come to work, offering paid leave to employees for COVID-19-related issues, and enhancing cleaning and sanitizing at the facility.
“While this location is temporarily idled and we adapt to operating during a pandemic, our work doesn’t stop,” the company said.
“Cargill provides an essential service to Canada — producing food that nourishes people. We are working with farmers and ranchers, our customers and our employees to supply food in this time of crisis and keep markets moving.”