Potentially growing COVID-19 outbreak at High River Cargill meatpacking plant

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Potentially growing COVID-19 outbreak at High River Cargill meat packing plant
WATCH: The Cargill meat processing plant near High River is dealing with at least 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 according to the union that represents its workers. As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, a Calgary doctor who helped organize vaccination clinics at the plant last year is calling on work places to offer on-site clinics again – Jan 10, 2022

The home to one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada in 2020 has been hit yet again with the virus.

UFCW Local 401 confirmed to Global News the High River, Alta., Cargill meatpacking plant has at least 44 COVID-19 cases as of Sunday — though that number is likely to be higher, according to union president Tom Hesse.

Back in May 2020, the High River plant had more than 900 workers test positive for the disease, and three deaths were linked to the outbreak.

Read more: Alberta confirms 6,257 new COVID-19 cases Friday, another pandemic record

On Thursday, the union that represents roughly 2,000 workers sent a letter to Cargill outlining demands for changes to the work environment amid the Omicron variant spreading rapidly in the province.

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Hesse asked the company how it plans to provide employees with proper PPE and rapid tests, if it has conducted an independent ventilation and air quality assessment and if Cargill plans to adjust its approach to sick pay and absences.

As of Monday morning, the union said it’s still awaiting a response.

Read more: Coronavirus: Should food processing workers get vaccine priority?

Cargill responded to an inquiry sent by Global News saying: “Like everyone, we are seeing cases in our facilities, including High River, ebb and flow as communities work to manage the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.”

It highlighted the employee vaccination rate of more than 84 per cent and was gracious for local health officials that provided two vaccine clinics.

Read more: ‘A cautious relief:’ COVID-19 vaccinations to begin at two Alberta meat plants

The meatpacking plant plans to remain operational through the pandemic; however, it stated it has reduced capacity to its “typical pandemic output.”

“Safety measures at the facility, including temperature testing, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, face coverings, screening between employee stations, prohibiting visitors, adopting social distancing practices where possible and staggered breaks have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic and remain in place now,” the statement said.

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A two day immunization clinic was held at the plant in April of last year and at three other meat plants around Calgary when 1,638 employees were vaccinated.

“They were very efficient. We had huge numbers of doses out in a short period of time and we had really high uptake,” said Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who helped organize the clinics.

He encouraged all employers at high-risk work places like long-term care centres, warehouses, meat plants and schools to offer on-site vaccinations again.

“Getting to the pharmacy between nine and five is not reasonable when you are working shift work. If you are working two jobs and you’re a single mom — if someone can bring the vaccine to you that makes your life a whole lot easier,” Fabreau said.

“That’s the other thing we need to remember. We don’t eat if we don’t have people that can work in the agricultural and food sectors and it behooves us as a society to protect these workers,” Fabreau said.

With files from Carolyn Kury de Castillo, Global News

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Documents prompt new calls for public inquiry into Cargill outbreak in Alberta'
COVID-19: Documents prompt new calls for public inquiry into Cargill outbreak in Alberta

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