Edmonton

Red Deer at 'critical stage' as city deals with slaughterhouse outbreak of COVID-19

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer is imploring residents to follow public health protocols as the city weathers the outbreak at one of its largest employers.

Mayor implores residents to follow public health protocols to avoid consequences

UFCW union labour relations officers gather early Wednesday morning outside the Olymel pork-processing facility in Red Deer, Alta. (Heather Marcoux/CBC)

Red Deer's mayor is imploring residents of the central Alberta city to follow public health protocol as the community weathers an outbreak at one of its largest employers

"We are at a critical stage as a community," Mayor Tara Veer said during a news conference Wednesday. "We either choose as a community to stop community spread — or we will be in a very different situation in 10 to 14 days after this incubation period."

As of Tuesday, an outbreak at the Olymel Red Deer Food Processing Plant was linked to 343 cases, 200 of which were active. 

One death, 35-year-old Darwin Doloque, has been linked to the outbreak. 

1,800 employees

Early Wednesday morning, about a dozen people gathered at the pork-processing plant in an event organized by UFCW Local 401.

"We're here because no workplace that's unsafe should ever be allowed to operate in society and surely people need to be put ahead of pigs," union president Thomas Hesse told CBC News.

The Quebec-based company has already announced that it would voluntarily close the plant, with operations ceasing over the next few days.

Approximately 1,800 employees work in close proximity at the plant, Hesse said. He expects the plant to fully cease operations sometime Wednesday or Thursday.

Hesse said the union had advocated for the plant's closure, a move supported by the vast majority of workers. 

"It really speaks to the level of fear when workers say, 'I want my own workplace to close and I'll take all of the risks associated with that.'"

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Wednesday the closure should have happened weeks ago. 

The province needs to be ready to shut down more workplaces or face another Cargill situation, he added. The meat-processing plant in High River, Alta., was the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Canada with at least 950 staff testing positive.

"Employers are on notice and the province is on notice that we expect them to do more to keep workers safe in facilities like this and in other facilities across the province," said McGowan

'A number of events'

Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) were not involved in the decision to close the Olymel plant. 

During Tuesday's daily COVID-19 update, Alberta's chief medical officer of health said processes in place at the Red Deer plant had previously been "very successful" in preventing spread.

But Dr. Deena Hinshaw also made several careful references to "events" that happened outside the plant, which may have contributed to the spread of the virus.

"Unfortunately, I think there were 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," she said.

Protecting hospital capacity

Veer said the city is now accounting for two-thirds of the region's COVID-19 cases — a significant increase from earlier in the pandemic when city residents made up half or less of the total cases.

The city has 420 active cases of COVID-19, according to the province.

"We have a responsibility to protect capacity at our local hospital, which is at capacity at the best of times," she said.

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre serves approximately 400,000 people in the region, which includes the city's population of around 100,000.

Veer said the city is working with AHS and other groups to ensure that Olymel workers are connected to supports and resources to help them through isolation.

"That will have a cascading effect potentially on other businesses if someone has dual employment, and also potentially has a cascading effect if they share households with someone," she said. 

"That's where the housing supports and the quarantine and isolation supports are imperative."

With files from Heather Marcoux

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