What led to the biggest outbreak in Alberta? Hundreds of COVID-19 cases from the Cargill Meat Factory

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How have the numbers related to the Cargill meat plant epidemic increased so dramatically over a period of days?

This is the obvious question asked after Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced an 842% increase in COVID-19 plant-associated cases on Friday.

Cargill previously told CBC News that it would temporarily reduce speed changes, test temperatures and implement improved cleaning and disinfection. He also said that he would adopt physical distancing practices when possible.

But some Cargill employees told CBC News that they were now afraid to come to work, citing “shoulder to shoulder” working conditions and fears of transmission in an establishment that they said were simply too busy, even with reduced staff, for physical distance. possible.

Previously, there were only 38 known cases associated with the Cargill outbreak. Hinshaw said Friday that there are now 358 cases identified in households connected to Cargill – a figure that represents 15 percent of all cases in Alberta, and more than in the entire province of Saskatchewan.

At a public telephone meeting held on Saturday between Cargill workers and provincial health officials, Dr. Jia Hu, a Calgary medical officer of health, said that about 200 of these cases were directly related to contractors and workers in Calgary. Cargill.

Hinshaw said the remaining 158 involved households that had “several different exposures,” including long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen said in a phone call to city hall on Saturday that he was satisfied that conditions at the Cargill meat plant in High River, Alberta, were safe for the workers to return. (Will Wang / CBC)

This story is based on interviews with eight current Cargill employees. CBC News has changed the names of the workers referenced in this story because they fear negative impact on their jobs if they were identified.

Symptoms appear

A large part of Cargill’s staff – the plant employs approximately 2,000 workers – is made up of members of the Filipino community. Employees surveyed estimate that approximately 60 to 80 percent of the workforce is Filipino.

Cargill, based in Minnesota, is very present in the Philippines, investing $ 235 million in this country in 2018.

Joshua operated a butcher’s stall in a market in the Philippines before applying for a position in High River.

“My work in the Philippines was too easy, because I had to work in my stand. But at Cargill, it’s much more difficult. Everyone is too close and standing, ”he said.

This became a problem, said Joshua, when cases of COVID-19 began to emerge in the facility. He developed a headache, fever and body pain on April 7.

Cargill set up tents and checked temperatures, like what Alberta health services have done for healthcare workers. (Dan McGarvey / CBC)

More workers quickly started to experience symptoms. Kenneth experienced dizziness and headaches, and soon he and his 20-year-old son, who does not work at the facility, both tested positive for COVID-19.

In a letter to the mayor of High River, Craig Snodgrass, and sent to the media on April 12 – one day before 38 cases were confirmed by the union – more than 250 Filipino residents in the community called for the plant to be shut down during at least two weeks. .

“We, the workers and our families, are concerned and afraid that we may bring the virus home,” the letter said.

The following day, the union representing some workers at the plant also called for the facilities to be shut down while a plan could be drawn up.

But classified as an essential service in the food supply chain, the facility remained open. Workers say they fear conditions inside the city may not have accelerated the spread of the virus.

Close contact

Cargill temporarily laid off 1,000 workers last Tuesday, according to the union that represents them.

Although Cargill is challenging the layoffs, the company has confirmed that it has temporarily cut positions by cutting a second position in order to “minimize the impact of COVID-19”. He also said he would implement physical distance, if possible.

“I’m not sure how many workers there are right now,” said Kenneth, who is now in isolation. “But when I was working, the number of workers in my line, we were in full force. Elbow to elbow. “

Cargill has also started to stagger breaks and install dividers in the cafeteria. Some workers disputed that physical distance was even observed in these circumstances.

“If you go to the locker room to change your clothes, it’s the same thing. Our lockers are also shoulder to shoulder, ”said Angelo, who lives in a house with three other families and is currently in segregation. ” The [facility] is just constructed like this. We cannot rebuild it to separate it by two meters. ”

When I was working, the number of workers in my line, we were in full force. Elbow to elbow.– Kenneth, Cargill employee

During the teleconference on Saturday, Hinshaw said that carpoolers to work are a concern for health officials.

Feeling compelled to work after a positive test

Although Cargill allowed workers to go home in quarantine if they had symptoms, some said they felt like they were forced to return to work too soon.

“The Alberta Health Service told me on April 12 that I was positive and that I should be quarantined for another 14 days,” said Christian. “Cargill called me [three days later] and asked if I could come back to work tomorrow.

“How can I go back to work, I asked, if my result is positive? They said, even if you are positive, if there are no symptoms, you can go back to work. “

Angelo said his manager called him and asked why he needed to be isolated. He says he told his manager, if you want to confirm it, call AHS. His manager agreed.

Cargill also started offering bonuses during the COVID-19 epidemic, workers said. They feared that by missing work, they would miss the bonus.

“Honestly, they don’t care about their employees,” said Christian. “They say they can replace people at any time. They don’t care. “

Company agrees to remain open

CBC News submitted a list of questions regarding workers’ concerns about physical distance and pressures to enter work at Cargill, which did not respond to individual complaints.

Spokesman Daniel Sullivan said that since the business is considered an essential service, Cargill is committed to keeping the production facilities open.

“Our priority is the safety of our employees and limiting the spread of the virus where we can. We are working with local health authorities to ensure that proper prevention, testing, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed, ”he said in an email to CBC News. . “We also continue to apply a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all positive COVID-19 team member tests as well as for all employees with whom they have come into close contact. “

Watch for it: Before 358 cases linked to families related to the Cargill plant in High River were announced, a Cargill spokesperson said that Canadians should not worry about the supply of beef. from the country.

Should Canadians be concerned about the beef supply? A Cargill spokesperson says no, even with COVID-19 cases in three plants in Alberta. 5:03

Other employees, like William, say they think Cargill has done everything they can given the contagiousness of the COVID-19 virus.

“There were different bulletin boards, there were always announcements of what was going on, they changed the start times,” said William. “People just laughed at the rules of social distancing. “

Beef production in Canada

An integral part of any decision to close a plant like Cargill is its impact on the beef industry in North America.

The High River plant in Cargill, as well as the JBS plant in Brooks and the Harmony Beef plant in Balzac – which have also confirmed cases of COVID-19 – account for about three-quarters of beef suppliers to Canada.

Households connected to the Cargill plant in High River, located about 60 kilometers south of Calgary, now account for 358 cases. (Dan McGarvey / CBC)

According to Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattleman’s Association, Cargill normally treats almost 4,000 animals a day at this time of the year.

Any decision to close would have a significant impact on Canadian producers, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has already seen beef prices drop by almost 30%.

“The more the plant is closed, the more animals that were supposed to reach the market are detained. We’re also seeing a slowdown or a closure of factories in the United States, ”said Laycraft. “The first impact is really back on the producers. “

Calls to close

Although some, including Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, have asked the government to temporarily shut down the plant and compensate workers, the province has so far resisted those calls. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshan said on Saturday that he was confident the plant was safe.

“They certainly have the confidence of Alberta health services that they have put in place the strongest mitigation and prevention measures available,” said Laycraft. “So we are fairly confident that they can operate this plant safely. I think it’s about putting the workers back in good health to bring them back and make them available. “

Cargill is one of the two main suppliers of beef to McDonald’s Canada. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press)

The plight of essential workers, who told CBC News that they were afraid to return to work tomorrow, has yet to be taken into account, said Sheila Block, senior economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

Block said that using the 2016 census data, she found that there was an overrepresentation of racialized groups and people of color in the meat processing industry – twice their representation in the population active total.

“We consider these workers to be essential, [but] they make about 20 percent less than the average industrial wage, “said Block. We count on these workers, but they receive no remuneration or salary commensurate with the extent to which we count on them. ”

Block said the pandemic has clearly highlighted the gap between those of us who can isolate ourselves at home and all the people who allow us to do so.

“This particular case really makes me wonder if we find that some of our essential workers are consumable,” said Block. “We know what to do and we need the will of the government to take on this collective responsibility and ensure that all employers protect workers.”

There have been no reports of food or food packaging associated with the transmission of COVID-19, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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