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3 more employees at Brandon Maple Leaf hog plant test positive for COVID-19

A Maple Leaf Foods employee walks past a Maple Leaf sign at the company's meat facility in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 15, 2008.
A Maple Leaf Foods employee walks past a Maple Leaf sign at the company's meat facility in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 15, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Three more employees at the sprawling Maple Leaf hog processing plant in Brandon tested positive for the novel coronavirus and now the workers’ union is calling for the plant to be temporarily shut down.

One employee had already tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, which a Maple Leaf spokesperson said appeared to have been contracted in the community, rather than at the hog plant.

However, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said the 18 new cases announced Thursday in the Prairie Mountain Health region are linked to a cluster case in Brandon, rather than evidence of community spread.

“That cluster actually started with a travel-related case out east,” he said at a press briefing.

“We’re not seeing evidence of transmission within the workplace and so that would be an important thing that would concern us if we saw.”

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“Late… Wednesday, August 5, the union was made aware of three more positive-cases of COVID-19 among non-production unionized employees,” United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 wrote in a statement.

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The union wants Maple Leaf to cease production until Aug. 10 at the earliest, the union local’s president Jeff Traeger wrote in a statement. “Until we have more results from the outstanding tests among our members at Maple Leaf.”

The union is now flanked by the Manitoba NDP and the Manitoba Liberals, with both parties’ leaders calling for the plant to close temporarily.

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But the company has no plan to cease production at the massive facility, which employs just under 2,000 unionized employees.

However, several employees were asked to self-quarantine.

“It appears very likely that the team members contracted COVID-19 in the community. We will continue to operate our Brandon plant as long as we believe we can provide an environment that will protect the safety of our people while working,” Janet Riley, Maple Leaf’s vice-president of communications and public affairs, said in a written statement Thursday.

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The plant operates daily health screenings and temperature checks, enforces physical distancing and mandates personal protective equipment for all workers, Riley wrote.

“Our plants and people have transformed how they operate through social distancing, plexiglass separators on production lines where possible, marks on floors to control movement in certain directions and efforts to decrease density, like staggered shifts and additional break space,” she wrote.

Roussin too is not calling for the closure of the plant, again pointing to evidence the cases were not contracted within the workplace.

Meanwhile, the union isn’t budging on its call for a temporary closure of the pork processing plant.

“UFCW 832 continues to be in discussion with Maple Leaf management and will continue to push for a plant closure to keep our members safe,” the union’s statement reads.

COVID-19 cases in Manitoba have remained relatively low, with a current total of 444, but there has recently been an increase in infections.

— with files from the Canadian Press

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Coronavirus: How the pandemic has changed the future of meat processing plants