The Olymel meat processing plant in Red Deer has another COVID-19 outbreak.
The company confirmed that a new “cluster” of COVID-19 cases started on Jan. 20 and additional testing on-site has been underway this week by Alberta Health Services to confirm any other cases.
“The number of positive cases has been climbing up since Jan. 20. We’re trying to keep control of this. Working with our union and AHS. With all our employees to reinforce our measures,” said Richard Vigneault, a spokesperson for Olymel.
Alberta Health confirmed 156 cases Friday linked to the outbreak, of which, 80 are active and 75 are recovered. There was also a death on Jan. 28 that was linked to the outbreak.
The flare-up led to calls Friday by the union that represents workers at Olymel to shut down the plant temporarily, while the COVID-19 issues are sorted out.
Thomas Hesse, president of the UFCW 401, said there needs to be a circuit breaker to keep the cases from spreading further.
“We’ve got this wave of fear right now, moving through the plant. Those numbers are very high,” Hesse said, adding the union is putting in a request to AHS as well as Occupational Health and Safety for a temporary plant closure.
Hesse said that Olymel has ramped up production recently and hired a number of employees, which may be leading to the spike of cases.
He added in a poll of employees, around 80 per cent are afraid to go to work.
“We’re facing a little bit of a Cargill situation. We’re going to ask for the plant to be closed. Not closed permanently, but the pause button has to be hit,” he said.
“We’re hearing Olymel does not have proper social distancing during lunch breaks, that they’re not regulating that as well as they should.
“They’ve recently increased production and recently engaged in a fairly large scale hiring. We worry that health and safety has really fallen through the cracks. Of course, this is going to make its way out into the City of Red Deer and vice versa.”
One of Canada’s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks came last April, when Cargill, in High River, shut down for two weeks because of an outbreak that initially affected 350 of its 2,200 workers.
Hesse said it’s easy to see the parallels in Red Deer.
“Those numbers are bigger than the early Cargill numbers,” Hesse said of the Olymel active COVID-19 case numbers.
“We were asking for a Cargill plant closure when there were 10 and 20 cases. There were a lot of nerves around this virus and a lot of questions being asked. And Cargill turned their nose up at the request, next thing you know, we had something like 1,000 cases and people that were dying.”
The Red Deer Olymel plant also had an outbreak at the facility in mid-November, when 20 positive cases of COVID-19 were identified. Before the most recent outbreak, 36 people at the facility had tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We care about the health of our employees and there were not many cases since the beginning of the pandemic last March. We had an outbreak in November. We have had this cluster since around Jan. 20,” Vigneault said.
There are 1,850 employees at the plant in Red Deer.
-With files from The Canadian Press