Provincial health officials confirmed Wednesday that a worker from the JBS meat packing plant near Brooks, Alta., has died while awaiting results from a COVID-19 test.
“There are two additional deaths in Brooks in people with COVID (tests) pending, one of those was a worker at the JBS plant site,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health.
Hinshaw said there are now 96 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among workers at the plant.
In a statement to Global News, JBS spokesperson Cameron Bruett said the Brooks facility will remain open to continue to provide food for the country.
“We will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe. We are working diligently to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and have adopted enhanced safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits to keep our workplaces, team members and products safe,” Bruett said.
“We’re certain that the transmission is happening outside the plant at an exponential rate as compared to in, because we don’t have any confirmed transmission within the plant from a worker being with another worker,” Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita said on Wednesday. “They take extreme caution and I think they’ve been doing a good job there.”
The union representing workers at the JBS plant is calling on the company to shut down the facility for two weeks.
“What we’re asking for is a consistent approach when we do have a positive find in a plant,” national president of the Agriculture Union Fabian Murphy said. “We think that the 14 day shutdown period will allow for the incubation period to determine who is healthy enough to go back to work.”
“It’s a community issue as well,” Murphy said. “It’s not just a workplace issue here. Those folks that are in the plants, if they contact COVID-19, they’re going to bring it home to their families and then it gets spread throughout the community.”
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The Alberta Federation of Labour is calling on Alberta’s government to launch an investigation into the death of a woman who worked at meat packing plant south of Calgary in Cargill. The woman in her 60’s died of COVID-19.
Global News has reached out for comment from Cargill on the call for an investigation, but hasn’t received a response at time of publication.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Alberta health officials have confirmed 580 cases of COVID-19 connected with the meat plant.
A day before the shutdown was announced Cargill told Global News all staff were having their temperature checked upon arrival and that face masks were being handed out to all employees as well. Additional safety protocols including enhanced cleaning and sanitizing had also been added, along with staggered break times and shift flexibility.
Health officials, however, are learning that the virus is not just spreading among workers inside these facilities, but how workers travel to and from the job site can pose a threat as well.
“I think we’re up to six plants that have been affected by COVID now in Canada and in most cases, worker mobility was a huge issue,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
“Its very difficult to implement physical distancing measures when everyone is in a bus or everyone is carpooling and there are some immigrant workers living together as well.”
Charlebois believes a shut down at the JBS facility is inevitable but having it happen while Cargill is down will have a significant impact on the country’s food supply.
“Both of them combined together would represent roughly about 70% of all the beef that is processed in Canada for Canadians.”