36 cases of novel coronavirus linked to outbreak at Alberta’s Harmony Beef plant

Coronavirus outbreak declared at Alberta’s Harmony Beef plant
WATCH: Thirty-six COVID-19 cases have now been reported at a meat-processing plant near Balzac. Jill Croteau reports.

An outbreak of the novel coronavirus at another Alberta meat plant has led to 36 people falling ill, according to Alberta Health Services.

In an emailed statement, AHS said an outbreak was declared at the Harmony Beef facility on March 26, and said the health authority has been working with the plant operators since March when COVID-19 cases were first confirmed.

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According to Harmony, 25 of the cases are among employees at the plant, the first one of which was identified 49 days ago.

The company said all of the cases were asymptomatic and no one was hospitalized.

“One case is too many but we have had only one positive test reported in the first five days of May,” Harmony said. “Several have returned to work after quarantine.”

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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Tuesday part of the case number is related to the fact that as part of its outbreak management, Harmony tested asymptomatic employees.

“Almost one-third of these cases were found by offering testing to those who have no symptoms, which enables quicker case management and contact tracing,” Hinshaw said.

“It is important to be able to respond rapidly to these situations.”

Alberta announces 36 COVID-19 cases at Harmony meatpacking plant
Alberta announces 36 COVID-19 cases at Harmony meatpacking plant

AHS spokesperson James Wood said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the plant, but AHS helped with both onsite and offsite support with things like physical distancing and disinfection of the plant.

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“Immediately following the outbreak, Harmony Beef implemented a number of measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19 among its employees and began working proactively with the CFIA and AHS,” Wood said.

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“AHS has connected directly with workers, sharing information about how they can protect themselves and their families.”

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He added a virtual town hall was held with an AHS medical officer of health on April 30 for employees and their families to tune in and have any questions answered.

Harmony said the plant has taken a number of steps to help stop the spread of the virus, including site-wide testing of employees. It also said it started testing the temperatures of all staff members reporting to work on March 16.

Hinshaw says recommendations and requirements in place at Harmony meatpacking plant
Hinshaw says recommendations and requirements in place at Harmony meatpacking plant

Employees are also not allowed to go back and forth between the three separate areas the plant is divided into, which each have individual parking lots, entrances, locker rooms and cafeterias, the company added.

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“We have provided new PPE surgical masks to everyone every day, dramatically increased sanitizing efforts, put in plexi-glass dividers where possible, set up as much social distancing as possible, staggered shifts to separate arrivals, limited car pooling to two people, and so much more to safeguard employees,” Harmony said.

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Hinshaw said health officials learned from other outbreaks at similar facilities — like the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in High River — and are implementing recommendations based on those lessons.

Wood said AHS and the CFIA are in regular communication with Harmony as all parties work to limit the spread of the virus.

“The CFIA is present in the building whenever the plant is operating. AHS has inspected the plant as well, with the most recent visit on April 28,” he said.

Wood said officials are working on contact tracing to identify any more potential cases linked to the outbreak, and are working with anyone who needs to self-isolate to ensure they have the proper supports and education.