COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

More COVID cases among Manitoba meat plant staff, but no closure planned

BRANDON, Man. — Manitoba’s top doctor says stricter regional restrictions are possible as a cluster of COVID-19 cases in the province’s second-largest city grew to 64, with more than a third them workers at a hog-processing plant.

Maple Leaf Foods said Monday that 23 of its employees in Brandon had tested positive for COVID-19, though neither the company nor public health officials believe the virus has been spreading within the workplace.

Manitoba reported 16 new cases on Monday, bringing the provincial total to 558. There are currently 196 active infections.

Chief Medical Officer Brent Roussin said there is some evidence of community transmission in Brandon, though most cases are linked to a known source.

“Our approach is to not have widespread restrictions, (but to) take a much more surgical approach,” Roussin said.

“So we haven’t been looking at anything specifically right now. That’s always obviously on the table.”

He said officials have been closely monitoring the Maple Leaf plant, though there’s nothing to suggest virus spread within the facility.

“The company is going beyond public health recommendations and is having a larger number of workers self-isolating than what was recommended by public health,” Roussin said.

“We’re in regular communication with the company, which has been quite co-operative and continues to share information with us.”

Maple Leaf vice-president Janet Riley said pandemic protocols include daily health and temperature screening, mandatory face coverings and social distancing.

“Public health officials support our view that our workplace remains safe and that there is no reason to suspend operations,” she said in an emailed statement.

“Simply put, based on all the evidence, COVID-19 is not being spread at our plant. It is important to note that 144 members of our Brandon plant team have tested negative for COVID-19.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, which represents 2,000 Maple Leaf employees, has been calling for a brief halt to operations until outstanding COVID-19 tests for known virus contacts come back.

Union president Jeff Traeger said some of the positive cases have been among people working the same shift in the same department at Maple Leaf.

“And so I think it’s either a very strong coincidence or maybe they haven’t gotten it right — I don’t know.”

Either way, he said the plant should take a pause given how many workers carpool and take public transit to and from work.

Traeger said aside from refusing a shutdown, Maple Leaf has done a good job acting on recommendations to make operations safer. He added the company, union and government are discussing setting up testing at the plant.

He said the union is trying to avoid the “worst-case scenario” seen at the Cargill cattle slaughterhouse south of Calgary this spring, where nearly half the workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Traeger said workers, many of whom came to Canada as temporary foreign workers, are “absolutely terrified.”

“A large, large percentage of them have contacted the union office looking for a way to not go to work, but of course they’ve all got bills to pay.”

Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest said the Maple Leaf plant is by far the single biggest private employer in the community, but he would support a temporary closure if public health officials deemed it necessary.

The same goes to any possible broader lockdowns for the region.

“Throughout this, we have deferred to public health experts to really provide the direction and we’ve carefully and deliberately followed their lead from the very beginning of the pandemic,” Chrest said in an interview.

“These people have the expertise and the skill and training and experience to be able to lead us on this.”

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 10, 2020

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