A Cargill meat processing plant is shown in Chambly, Que., south of Montreal, Sunday, May 10, 2020. COVID-19 vaccination clinics for two of Canada's largest beef-packing plants are to begin in southern Alberta today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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

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

HIGH RIVER, Alta. — Jamie Welsh-Rollo was all smiles Thursday as COVID-19 vaccination clinics began at two of Canada’s largest beef-packing plants in southern Alberta.

Welsh-Rollo, who is a union steward and works on the line packaging meat at Cargill, said there was an “air of excitement” inside the plant, which employs 2,200 people.

“It’s really exciting to know we’re all going to be protected and there hopefully isn’t another outbreak here,” she said, still wearing her face shield and a black hoodie with the words “Straight Outta Quarantine.”

Plans for a clinic at Cargill had been put off last week when a vaccine shipment was delayed.

The Cargill plant, near High River south of Calgary, and the JBS Canada facility in Brooks were hit hard by COVID-19 outbreaks last year.

Nearly half of Cargill’s workers tested positive last spring and the plant was shut down for two weeks.

JBS reduced operations to a single shift each day for a full month. It reported 650 cases among its 2,500 workers.

The two plants together process about 70 per cent of Canada’s beef.

Welsh-Rollo said she’s worked at Cargill since 2018 and the last year has been unsettling. She said she’s been afraid of testing positive.

“I have a five-year-old son at home and I’ve been worried that he’s going to get sick and, if he gets sick, then it’s going to be awful for me because I don’t like seeing my son with a cold, let alone, COVID,” she said.

“In the last year I’ve been tested about six times because my son would get sick and I would get sick and it’s crazy.”

On Thursday, employees were being called off the line, 40 at a time, and taken upstairs for their shots. Welsh-Rollo was waiting outside to get her dose of Moderna and there was a long lineup from the middle of the plant all the way to the entrance.

“I’m off tomorrow because my son has an appointment, so I need to get in today for sure.”

Dr. Annalee Coakley, a Calgary physician who helped organize the clinic, took a break from giving shots to discuss its early progress.

“I’m thrilled. I’m very excited and I was very nervous yesterday with anticipation, but it seems to be working really smoothly inside so we’ve already done over 290 vaccinations,” Coakley said just before noon.

“I’m hoping that they recognize that they’re valued in our society in general and I’m hoping they’re happy with the process and happy with receiving the vaccination on site. It’s great to see that enthusiasm.”

Ricardo de Menezes, southern director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said vaccinations are an important part of worker safety.

“The virus spreads that much faster with the close proximity of the workers and the sort of atmosphere and environment that they work in,” he said. “It’s important to have as much protection for workers at Cargill and JBS and all the food-processing facilities as possible.”

De Menezes said any further delay would put workers further at risk.

“We have seen cases of the variant at this plant. What do we do if another outbreak occurs?” he asked.

“They can’t live without their paycheque.”

Local 401 President Thomas Hesse said an overwhelming majority of members wanted early access to a safe vaccine.

“It’s sort of a cautious optimism, a cautious relief.”

Hesse said polls at Cargill indicate 70 to 80 per cent of workers are reasonably comfortable with receiving the vaccine, while others are somewhat hesitant.

It’s not mandatory, he said, but he hopes most will decide to get a shot.

Hesse said it’s important that Cargill and other employers make sure workplaces remain safe even after vaccinations. He said there finally seems to be a recognition that it’s a serious workplace issue.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced earlier this week that vaccinations would happen for all meat-packing employees across the province.

They are to be offered to more than 15,000 workers at 136 federal and provincial plants.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chris Scott, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe, speaks during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at his cafe in Mirror on Saturday. The Whistle Stop was shut down by AHS for not complying with COVID-19 rules. (Photo by The Canadian Press)
Central Alberta café owner and COVID-19 protester released from custody

Chris Scott was arrested at protest rally outside his cafe on Saturday

A 2018 Jayco Pinnacle fifth wheel model 37MDQS valued at over $100,000 was stolen from Masco RV Storage in Wetaskiwin earlier this week. (Photo courtesy of Wetaskiwin RCMP)
A 2018 Jayco Pinnacle fifth wheel model 37MDQS valued at over $100,000 was stolen from Masco RV Storage in Wetaskiwin earlier this week. (Photo courtesy of Wetaskiwin RCMP)
Fifth wheel RV stolen from Wetaskiwin RV Storage compound

Wetaskiwin RCMP is looking for information about a stolen RV. A break-in… Continue reading

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, April 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Jewish group disturbed by reports of Hitler Youth flags in Alberta towns

RCMP spoke to the property owner, who refused to remove the flag

ALERT seized drugs and a variety of guns from a home in Lacombe on May 5 after an investigation. (Photo courtesy of ALERT)
ALERT seizes guns and drugs in Lacombe

The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team arrested three people in Lacombe earlier… Continue reading

Temporary trail closure at Three Mile Bend

Trail closed into the weekend

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) after the team defeated the Dallas Stars during an NHL hockey game Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Analysis: McDavid NHL’s MVP front-runner in condensed season

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has 100-plus point season

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save as Maple Leafs defenceman TJ Brodie (78) and Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli (73) look for the rebound during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The Leafs and the Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years when the 2020-21 NHL post-season gets underway.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Singer Celine Dion performs during her first World Tour show called Courage Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Songbird Uncaged: Celine Dion readies return to Las Vegas stage for 10-date run

Starting on Nov. 5, Dion will play 10 dates at the Resorts World Las Vegas theatre

An Empire Day/Victoria Day gathering of school children on Ross Street by the Cenotaph in the 1920s. On the right hand side, are members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals). (Photo via Red Deer Archives)
Victoria Day event helped after war

One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1921, a major community event… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer: Independence is a one-way gate

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland declared in 2014 that the referendum… Continue reading

Boston Bruins left wing Nick Ritchie (21) and Washington Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) battle for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat (12) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Chicago, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Most Read