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Union calls for temporary shutdown at Alberta pork plant battling COVID-19 outbreak

The union representing workers at a pork processing plant in central Alberta contending with a COVID-19 outbreak is calling for the facility to be temporarily shut down. 

'Every infection carries the risk of death or serious, long-lasting health consequences'

UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse calls the outbreak at the Red Deer plant a grave hazard to workers. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The union representing workers at a pork processing plant in central Alberta contending with a COVID-19 outbreak is calling for the facility to be temporarily shut down.

As of Sunday, 197 cases had been linked to the outbreak at the Olymel meat processing plant in Red Deer. That includes 116 actives cases, 80 recovered and one death, Alberta Health confirmed.

The cases have grown significantly from Friday, when 156 cases were linked to the outbreak including 80 active cases, and 75 recovered.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, the union representing the plant's 1,850 workers, wrote a letter Friday to the facility's manager, requesting Olymel shut down the plant for two weeks and pay workers in full during the time off.

In the letter, union president Thomas Hesse and secretary-treasurer Richelle Stewart call on the operator to address the "grave hazard" to workers.

"Every infection carries the risk of death or serious, long-lasting health consequences we are only beginning to understand. We cannot afford to wait."

An Olymel meat plant in Red Deer is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, which has been linked to the recent death of a man in his 30s. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Health officials declared an outbreak at the plant on Nov. 17.

Olymel spokesperson Richard Vigneault said it wasn't until Jan. 20 that there was a significant rise in infections.

Vigneault said employees have been notified of the Jan. 28 death of a man in his 30s. He said the company is still waiting on a report on the case and he won't be commenting further on it now.

Alberta Health, which reported his death, said there were no known comorbidities.

'No company can prevent an outbreak'

Vigneault said Olymel has implemented measures to prevent the virus spread with help from provincial health officials, Occupational Health and Safety officials and the union.

He said the company apologizes to all the staff who have been affected.

"The fact is, no company can prevent an outbreak of some form or another during this pandemic," Vigneault said in an interview Sunday from Montreal.

"We're doing all the sanitary measures to bring this under control."

Hesse and Stewart said in their letter that they want the company to treat the hazard the same as it did during an outbreak last March at its plant in Yamachiche, Que.

Olymel announced March 29 it would temporarily close its hog slaughter and cutting plant in Yamachiche for 14 days after nine plant employees tested positive for COVID-19.

The closure gave employees the time to self-isolate at the recommendation of the public health department, and the plant resumed operations on April 14.

Vigneault said he wouldn't comment on the union's requests Sunday, but that he might have further word on Monday.

Alberta Health Services said in an email that public health inspectors have been visiting the Red Deer site to review Olymel's COVID-19 mitigation measures and safety protocols.

The email notes that preventive measures to enhance the safety of employees at the facility were previously undertaken by Olymel early on in the pandemic.

"Olymel has robust processes in place to limit the spread of illness within their facility and has strict protocols in place regarding physical distancing, PPE, disinfection and other safety measures to support physical distancing of staff," the AHS email said.

The email also noted AHS began another round of on-site prevalence testing for COVID-19 on Thursday to help identify anyone who may have the virus but be asymptomatic.

Meanwhile, a beef processing plant in High River, Alta., that experienced a large outbreak last year is now dealing with another, smaller outbreak.

As of Sunday, Alberta Health had been notified of 14 cases linked to the outbreak at Cargill in High River. Ten were active and four have recovered.

Cargill said Sunday that employees at the facility that have recently tested positive for COVID-19 are now in isolation and receiving appropriate medical care. Other employees who have been identified as having close contact are also being tested.

"We also continue to work closely with health officials to ensure effective prevention, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed within our facilities and beyond," Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said in an email.

The plant, south of Calgary, shut down for two weeks in April because of an outbreak that initially affected 350 of its 2,200 workers. Eventually nearly half the workers contracted the novel coronavirus and two employees died.

With files from CBC News

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