The number of positive cases of COVID-19 has been climbing up since Jan. 20 at Red Deer’s Olymel meat processing plant. (File photo by Advocate Staff)

The number of positive cases of COVID-19 has been climbing up since Jan. 20 at Red Deer’s Olymel meat processing plant. (File photo by Advocate Staff)

Alberta pork plant sees rise in COVID cases, one death, in recent weeks

High River beef processing plant dealing with smaller outbreak

RED DEER, Alta. — A company that operates a pork processing plant in central Alberta says a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility has grown to nearly 80 cases this weekend.

Richard Vigneault, a spokesman for Olymel, says there was an outbreak at the company’s plant in Red Deer in November, but it wasn’t until Jan. 20 that there was a significant rise in infections.

Vigneault says one person has died and employees were informed of the death on Jan. 28, but he says the company is still waiting on a report on the case and he won’t be commenting further on it now.

The union representing the 1,850 workers at the plant wrote a letter Friday to the facility’s manager, requesting Olymel temporarily shut down the plant for two weeks and pay workers during the time off.

Vigneault says Olymel has implemented measures to prevent the virus spread with help from provincial health officials, occupational health and safety officials and the union.

He says the company is very sorry to all the staff who have been affected.

“The fact is, no company can prevent an outbreak of some form or another during this pandemic,” Vigneault said in an interview Sunday from Montreal.

“We’re doing all the sanitary measures to bring this under control.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Thomas Hesse and secretary-treasurer Richelle Stewart said in their letter Friday that they want the company to treat the hazard the same as it did during an outbreak last March at its plant in Yamachiche, Que.

Olymel announced March 29 it would temporarily close its hog slaughter and cutting plant in Yamachiche for 14 days after nine plant employees tested positive for COVID-19.

The closure gave employees the time to self-isolate at the recommendation of the public health department, and the plant resumed operations on April 14.

Vigneault said he wouldn’t comment on the union’s requests Sunday, but that he might have further word on Monday.

Alberta Health Services said in an email that public health inspectors have been visiting the Red Deer site to review Olymel’s COVID-19 mitigation measures and safety protocols.

The email notes that preventive measures to enhance the safety of employees at the facility were previously undertaken by Olymel early on in the pandemic.

“Olymel has robust processes in place to limit the spread of illness within their facility and has strict protocols in place regarding physical distancing, PPE, disinfection and other safety measures to support physical distancing of staff,” the AHS email said.

The email also noted AHS began another round of on-site prevalence testing for COVID-19 on Thursday to help identify anyone who may have the virus but be asymptomatic.

Meanwhile, a beef processing plant in High River, Alta., that experienced a large outbreak last year is now dealing with another, smaller outbreak.

Cargill said Sunday that six employees at the facility have recently tested positive for COVID-19, and that they are now in isolation and receiving appropriate medical care. Other employees who have been identified as having close contact are also being tested.

“We also continue to work closely with health officials to ensure effective prevention, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed within our facilities and beyond,” Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in an email.

The plant, south of Calgary, shut down for two weeks in April because of an outbreak that initially affected 350 of its 2,200 workers. Eventually nearly half the workers contracted the novel coronavirus and two employees died.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2021.

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