10 employees at Maple Leaf plant in Brandon test positive for COVID-19

Maple Leaf Foods says 10 workers at its pork processing plant in Brandon, Man., have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The company updated the total number of cases in a statement issued Friday afternoon.

Plant to continue operating; CEO says cases are linked to 'community gatherings and interactions'

More staff members at the Maple Leaf Foods pork processing plant in Brandon, Man., have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number sick workers at the plant to 10, the company said Friday afternoon. (CBC)

Maple Leaf Foods says 10 workers at its pork processing plant in Brandon, Man., have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The company updated the total number of cases in a statement issued Friday afternoon, but said there is no evidence of spread within the plant.

"All cases have been investigated and [determined] to be acquired in the community," the statement from Maple Leaf president and CEO Michael McCain said.

Earlier in the day, the union that represents plant workers said eight workers had tested positive for the novel ​​coronavirus. It said it was informed of the additional two cases on Friday afternoon.

"[Workers are] scared. They're scared to go to work," said Jeff Traeger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832.

None of them work on the plant's production line, Traeger said.

"When the three were announced yesterday, there was a very high absenteeism rate from the plant," Traeger said on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio. Many workers said they were going to get tested.

"They don't feel safe," he said. "The cases have now doubled since yesterday, so I suspect that fear will be worse."

The first employee who tested positive started feeling sick while at work on July 28 and hasn't been at work since, the union said earlier this week. More than 70 other staff members who may have been exposed went into self-isolation at home after that worker fell sick.

The UFCW represents nearly 2,000 of the roughly 2,300 workers at the facility in Brandon, Traeger said. The city of about 48,300 people is around 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

'I'm scared for us,' says premier

On Friday morning, Premier Brian Pallister said in a news conference he understands workers' fears, but that the province is following the best public health advice available and they should feel confident in their safety.

"I'm scared, too. I'm scared for them, I'm scared for us, I'm scared for every Manitoban," Pallister said. "I'm scared enough, I think, for everybody.

"But the fact of the matter is that the company there has taken every step that it's been asked to and more."

The union and Manitoba opposition parties are calling on Maple Leaf to shut down operations at the plant until at least Monday so workers can get tested and the facility can be cleaned.

No plan to halt operations

In his statement Friday, McCain reiterated that Maple Leaf does not plan to halt operations, because the employees' cases "are linked to community gatherings and interactions, and not to our plant."

Employees undergo daily health and temperature screenings, wear personal protective equipment and practise physical distancing within the plant, McCain's statement said.

"We are confident that our workplace is safe and we will continue operating."

McCain also said the Brandon plant was inspected by officials from Public Health and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Thursday afternoon.

"Their feedback affirmed that we are taking all the right actions, and our protocols to protect our people are robust," he said.

The company's plant in Lethbridge, Alta., also has an employee who tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, the statement said.

"Investigation into these cases indicates that all are linked to community spread, and not to workplace contact. All affected employees are recuperating at home," the statement said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said on Friday that Public Health hasn't seen evidence of transmission at the workplace so far. Unless that changes, he doesn't recommend a closure.

Roussin didn't specifically name Maple Leaf Foods, but confirmed that eight cases have been identified at a workplace in Brandon, which he said went "above and beyond" public health recommendations on precautions.

"It's eight cases that happen to work there, not eight cases that acquired it there. Not a single case acquired it there, from our investigation," Roussin said.

The province has identified "clear acquisition events" that happened outside of the workplace related to the eight cases, he said.

Roussin said Friday there's a cluster of 34 cases in Brandon. The cluster originated with someone who travelled east of the province and did not self-isolate correctly upon return, he said.

There are also six cases in the Brandon region that can't be linked to travel or a known case, Roussin said, meaning they're considered community transmission.

'Extremely limited' options

Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest said despite concern in the community, he doesn't believe it's the role of politicians to weigh in on whether the plant should close.

"This is a health incident and not really a political one," he said in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon.

Traeger said Maple Leaf employees who are afraid of going to work have few options. Manitoba's Labour Relations Act gives workers the right to refuse dangerous work, but Traeger said the law doesn't apply in the Brandon case because public health officials have said Maple Leaf's precautions are enough.

"Their choices are extremely limited," Traeger said. "They can either go to work or they can risk … being absent without leave by not reporting to work."

The facility's cafeteria seats roughly 1,200 people and the cutting floor can have anywhere from 600 to 800 people working on it in a day, he said.

He pointed to rapid spread of COVID-19 in other meat processing facilities in North America, including a Cargill Ltd. beef-processing plant near High River, Alta. Three people died and 940 employees tested positive as a result of that outbreak.

"We're in the same position right now that the Cargill plant was in the very beginning of the outbreak, where we have a small number, a handful, less than 10 people who have the virus," Traeger said.

"In Cargill, within two days that became 30, and within seven days that became 900."

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