Olymel’s Red Deer pork plant was not shut down earlier because health measures put in place after previous cases of COVID-19 had been successful, said the province’s top public health official on Tuesday.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was asked in her daily update on Tuesday why the plant, which announced on Monday it was being shut down temporarily, was not closed sooner.
Hinshaw said there had been sporadic outbreaks at the plant previously and steps taken to prevent the spread had been successful with no additional cases reported for some time. There have now been more than 300 cases identified and one 35-year-old worker has died.
“Unfortunately, I think there was a concurrence of a number of events that were not limited to events directly on that plant site and therefore we did see an increase in cases.”
Hinshaw said local public health officials had been working with plant officials when the first cases emerged and efforts apeared to have paid off.
“For many months, there were no significant transmission events that had happened.”
The Alberta Federation of Labour was sharply critical on Tuesday of the handling of the outbreak by Olymel and Alberta Health Services.
“Both the government and the company were more concerned about maintaining production and managing their public images than protecting the lives of workers or mitigating the threat that the outbreak posed to the broader public.”
McGowan wants a meeting with the premier and labour minister to ensure workplaces with COVID cases are shut down.
A statement from the labour group links to a letter from Alberta Health Services last week, which says on-site testing suggests one in five workers may have been infected. As of Feb. 10, there have been 297 cases at the plant with about 125 active cases, the Feb. 11 letter says.
The letter also states about 60 per cent of Olymel staff hold at least one other job outside the plant and those other employers must be notified of positive cases.
Hinshaw said on Tuesday she has been in contact with local health officials to ensure that plant workers have the support they need for isolation, quarantine or testing to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to other worksites as much as possible. They will also be told what financial compensation is available for those who cannot work.
“There is an intensive outreach happening right now to make sure all of those individuals impacted know all of the supports that they have available to them,” she said.
Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault had no comment on AFL’s accusations.
Vigneault said company is continuing to have discussions with unions, AHS and Occupational Health and Safety and others who are involved in plant operations.
“We’re looking at the next steps to properly shut down the plant in the coming days,” he said, adding there may be more information coming out later this week.
Red Deer’s Olymel plant has been operating at less than half capacity for the last two weeks in response to the outbreak. It was not clear on Tuesday how many employees were still working shifts this week.
Labour and Immigration spokesperson Diane Carter said Occupational Health and Safety has inspected the Olymel facility 14 times since Nov. 17, both in person and remotely.
“Alberta Health Services inspectors have visited the site on multiple occasions since the start of the outbreak to review the company’s safety protocols and continue to be in daily, ongoing contact with Olymel,” said Carter. “OHS continues to work with the employer and employees to ensure health orders are followed and promote a safe workplace.”
AHS is also working with Red Deer health officials to provide support to Olymel families, including connecting individuals to family physicians, isolation assistance, and other social supports as required.
“OHS and Alberta Health Services will continue to assess this situation and determine what further measures might be implemented to further reduce the spread of COVID-19 in this and other similar workplaces.”
AHS has asked Olymel to require all employees who have not tested or not tested negative since Jan. 15 get tested “as soon as possible.”
Health authorities also remind that anyone testing positive must notify all of their employers. Any Olymel workers who work at a healthcare facility, such as hospital, long-term care facility or lodge must only work at one site until the outbreak at Olymel is declared over.
Red Deer city manager Allan Seabrooke told council on Tuesday that city administrators are meeting with AHS and Olymel officials to discuss the situation.
“They are working closely with us,” he said, adding there are meetings daily.
Seabrooke said the situation is very serious since one in five of Olymel’s 1,850 employees may be infected.
The city wants to help the company and its employees manage the situation. This means the city is providing transportation for Olymel employees who don’t have cars or driver’s licenses to a special off-site testing location.
Seabrooke said these workers can’t use public transit since they were potentially exposed to the virus and might have COVID-19.
Seabrooke said the Olymel testing site is not at Burnt Lake Trail. It is located in a different location than where other city residents are being sent for testing.
“It’s being dealt with separately.”