Union leaders who witnessed a devastating COVID-19 outbreak at meat-packing facilities in Alberta are calling on a Brandon, Man., plant to shut down before its four cases of the novel coronavirus become many more.
There’s no time to waste, said Alexander Shevalier, president of the Calgary and District Labour Council.
He’s speaking from experience: In Alberta, 900 plus employees at a Cargill meat-packing plant tested positive for the virus and two died, while 600 employees were infected at a JBS plant.
“How many infections before the company takes it seriously? How many infections before the Manitoba government takes this seriously? Is it 10? Is it 100? Is it 1,000?” Shevalier asked.
“I would suggest that at four [cases] they can get a handle on it quite easily, and I would suggest at four it should prompt some sort of trigger testing to make sure that this is dealt with.”
In Brandon, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, which represents 2,000 employees at the processor, are calling on the company to temporarily cease production until at least Aug. 10, after four employees contracted the virus.
Outbreak rampant at Alberta meat processors
The union is asking to suspend operations until more information is known about the 60 outstanding tests among workers.
Their concerns are heightened by what happened at slaughterhouses to the west of them.
It took weeks for Cargill to succumb to pressure and close its plant near High River, Alta., but it was already well on its way to becoming the largest outbreak tied to a single facility in North America.
Only days before the plant was temporarily shuttered on Apr. 20, a provincial inspection by video concluded the plant could keep operating, while politicians held a telephone town hall to assure staff that their workplace was safe.
Several workers accused their employer of disregarding physical distancing rules and trying to lure people back to work from self-isolation.
But meat-packing outbreaks aren’t exclusive to Alberta. Across the continent, these businesses have emerged as dangerous hot spots for COVID-19, linked partially to employees’ inability to stay apart while standing shoulder to shoulder on the processing line.
Shevalier urged officials in Manitoba to act before it’s too late.
“It’s better if you get a handle on the outbreak early, so that you don’t have to close a plant for two weeks and create a lot of anxiety in the community.”
Although four employees at the Brandon plant are confirmed COVID-19 cases, Manitoba’s top doctor said Thursday there’s no evidence the virus has spread within the plant.
“If we see evidence of transmission within a facility, [that] would be concerning to us,” Dr. Brent Roussin said.
Maple Leaf said it is reviewing the four cases while each of the employees recovers at home. The company does not plan to cease production in the meantime.
“We will continue to operate our Brandon plant as long as we believe we can provide an environment that will protect the safety of our people while working,” the statement says.
One worker, who wasn’t on the production line, tested positive late last week and the three cases from Wednesday aren’t involved in production, UFCW Local 832 said.
Though the case numbers are low, it doesn’t allay the fears of Thomas Hesse, the union head representing workers at the Cargill plant in southern Alberta.
“The Cargill circumstance also started with a handful of employees and early on, it was hard to sort out what the origin of the outbreak was and what its connection was to the community,” said the president of UFCW Local 401, which is embroiled in a legal fight stemming from the union’s efforts to prevent the plant from reopening.
From what he’s heard from his counterparts in Manitoba, Maple Leaf worked diligently to acquire personal protective equipment, stagger breaks for workers and mandate temperature checks.
The company’s efforts should be applauded, Hesse said, but now, “Maple Leaf is at an intersection.” The right call is to shut down the plant temporarily, he said.
Experts are studying how meat-packing facilities became virus incubators. It’s believed the proximity of employees have played a role, and maybe the ventilation systems designed to control odours and prevent meat from spoiling.
“We’re seeing outbreaks related to a very specific industry. We should look hard at those and learn from industries where we don’t see outbreaks,” said Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc.
Hesse said he doesn’t want another community to go through what happened at Cargill.
He’s spoken to families who’ve lost a loved one because they went to work. He knows of workers, who didn’t exhibit symptoms, living with the guilt they spread the disease to someone else. He’s talked with a young mother who was forced to isolate in her garage, while her kids cried inside her house.
His message to Maple Leaf: “When you see a lot of [COVID-19 case] numbers, you’ve got to step back and you’ve got to do the right thing.”
Code Red for COVID-19: Ottawa's top doctor warns COVID status "close" to most severe level – CTV Edmonton
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in Ottawa, the medical officer of health is on the verge of moving Ottawa’s COVID-10 overall status to the most severe warning level during the pandemic.
“We are close to ‘Red,'” said Dr. Vera Etches when asked during Wednesday’s Council meeting about the current COVID-19 status in Ottawa.
The medical officer of health also warned that Ottawa could introduce a “targeted approach” to new restrictions and closures if the COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
The Ottawa Public Health coloured coded system indicates the status of COVID-19 in Ottawa by “Green,” “Yellow,” “Orange” and “Red.” Ottawa is currently in the “Orange” status for COVID-19, one step below the most severe level of the COVID-19 status.
The “Orange” status signals decreasing spread and few outbreaks, some hospital capacity and some health care worker infections. A “Red” status means “increasing spread and outbreaks. Limited hospital capacity and many health care worker infections. Limited or no ability to isolate cases/quarantine”
“We’ve spoken about whether we’re ‘Red’ now. Why I have not moved us into red as a global assessment is because our hospitalizations have stayed stable. This is good news, right?” said Dr. Etches.
“So the people who are testing positive are younger on the whole, so we’re not seeing the more serious complications that lead to hospitalizations.”
Ottawa Public Health reported 65 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the second highest one-day total of COVID-19 cases in September. On Tuesday, a record 93 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Ottawa.
Councillor Diane Deans asked Dr. Etches if it’s possible for Ottawa to avoid the Code “Red” status.
“I have a lot of confidence that the people of Ottawa can do this. We can turn the curve because we have done it before.”
“I don’t want to have to shut things down”: Dr. Etches
During Wednesday’s Council meeting, Councillor Mathieu Fleury asked Dr. Etches about the possibility of new closures and restrictions due to the rising number of cases. Dr. Etches said Ottawa Public Health would take a “targeted approach” to addressing possible sources of COVID-19.
“We will risk going into having to do more closures if we don’t turn the curve,” said Dr. Etches.
“I’m not interested in creating more economic damage. That harms our health as a population; we need to keep places open that are employing people. We’ll need to take a targeted approach if there is a type of business that’s causing more challenges.”
The medical officer of health said Ottawa Public Health is speaking with officials in cities seeing a large spike in new cases, including Toronto and Peel, about possible steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re all interested in a targeted approach to tackle where infections are spreading. For the most part, it’s really the social gatherings, in people’s homes.”
Last Thursday, Ontario announced new limits on social gatherings across the province. Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, while outdoor events can have 25 people.
“We need to then make sure that we’re adhering to the new provincial regulations of no more than 10 in a gathering, but really as few as possible. So your household and the people who are important to support you in your life. Whether they’re your grandparents or child care,” said Dr. Etches.
“I don’t want to have to shut things down.”
News Releases | COVID-19 Bulletin #198 – news.gov.mb.ca
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Parents, epidemiologists unsurprised by COVID cases in Sask. schools – CBC.ca
Eight cases of COVID-19 have now been identified in Saskatchewan schools — the latest was found earlier this week at Valley Manor Elementary School in Martensville, Sask.
However, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, says this was to be expected as children returned to their classrooms this fall.
“I’m certainly not surprised,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf. “We’ve known right from the start that this pandemic tends to affect adults and older people more in terms of symptoms. And since a lot of the testing has been focused on people with symptoms and those wanting to go back to work, we haven’t had as much uptake in testing from children.
“Now that we’re doing a little more testing in that age group, we expect to be finding a certain number of positives, both in terms of those who may have had mild symptoms and those with no symptoms at all.”
Janine Muyres’ three children attend City Park School in Saskatoon. For her, the transition to distance learning last winter was “kind of like having labour — when you’re in it, it’s hell, and when you’re out, you think ,’Well, that wasn’t so bad.'”
When Muyres found out her children could go back to their classrooms this fall, she was relieved to know that distance learning was off the table, at least for now.
“I remember telling my coworkers, ‘I don’t care if the kids have to wear a HAZMAT suit, they’re going back to school,’ she said.
“I’d been hanging on all summer with my fingers crossed, thinking ‘It’s got to go back, because I can’t do that to my kids again. I can’t put them through that.’
“I was just so busy with work. I couldn’t watch over them and make sure their assignments were getting done.”
With cold and flu season on the horizon, as well as fall allergies to contend with, Neudorf urged parents to take their children for flu shots as soon as possible and exercise caution when sending them to school with any health symptoms in the months ahead.
“I can imagine it’s going to get very frustrating to have mild symptoms leading to multiple tests being done and disruptions to work and family life,” he said. “This is the short-term reality we’re in this year.
“In the meantime, we do what we can with physical distancing, mask wearing, washing hands, using sanitizer and limiting your close circle of who you’re interacting with.”
For Neudorf, a case of COVID-19 in a school community can be a sign for administrators and public health officials to review their existing policies and question what could be done differently going forward.
“Whenever we see cases in a school, that’s a chance to re-look and ask if there is anything we could have done differently in terms of screening, keeping kids home when they’re sick … and contact tracing,” he said.
“Every time there’s a case or a cluster, it’s time to look at that in the context of that school and say, is there anything we could be doing differently here? We’re essentially learning as we go.”
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, is concerned about how quickly teachers are being asked to change on a dime as the school year progresses.
“From what I’m hearing, lots of teachers are kind of hanging by a thread and hoping that they can get through day to day at this point,” he said. “It is an unprecedentedly stressful time.
“I have lots of members who have been told — this late into the month already — that they’re changing their positions, switching subjects or going to online learning. And we’re asking that teachers be patient and roll with the punches, but at some point, we get to the fact that it’s very difficult to change what you teach this late into September.”
Maze has commended school faculty and staff for their thorough implementation of COVID safety protocols, but believes large class sizes and after-school activities may still fuel in-school transmission.
“Whether it’s practices or different events in the community, it’s a bit frustrating, because I know that schools have put in a tremendous amount of work to cohort students … and do block scheduling,” he said. “And that will all come undone if we continue to try to run things as normal in the evenings, as far as clubs and activities and events. So we’re hoping that the community can also do its part in order to help us keep the measures that have been put in place in schools to keep everyone safe.”
As for Muyres, she is working on sending her children out the door in the morning with a realistic perspective on this unique school year.
“I tell my kids, we’re not going to live in fear,” she said.
“We’re not going to let this consume our life, and nobody’s going to develop anxiety over this. This is here, it’s happening right now, here’s what you can do to prevent it. And we’re just going to go ahead until otherwise directed by health officials.”
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