Alberta didn’t shut down slaughterhouse because it had been ‘successful’ in managing outbreak

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says the province chose not to shut down a slaughterhouse after weeks of growing cases and one worker death, because for months the company had been successfully managing the outbreak. 

On Monday, Quebec-based Olymel voluntarily closed its Red Deer, Alta., pork processing plant, saying that due to the growing outbreak it could no longer manage operations in a safe and efficient manner. It was an abrupt change of position, telling CBC News hours earlier it had planned to remain open.

Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety were not involved in that decision, and both had approved the plant to continue operating.

As of Tuesday, there were 343 cases of COVID-19 linked to the current outbreak, 200 of which were active.

On Jan. 28 — more than two weeks ago — Darwin Doloque, a 35-year-old employee at the plant, died of COVID-19 linked to the workplace outbreak.

“It’s important to remember this particular plant has had sporadic cases, one or two at a time, for several months, and the processes that had been put in place at the plant site had been very successful in reducing spread,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday.

The outbreak had originally been declared in mid-November, and OHS said it had inspected the plant 14 times since then.

However, the rapid growth in cases over the past few weeks had drawn a warning from AHS, which on Thursday sent a letter to the company cautioning the outbreak “has become a concern for public health.” 

In the letter, which was obtained by CBC News, AHS said around one in five workers was believed to be infected and spreading the virus. The plant has a workforce of close to 1,850, and about 60 per cent of the staff hold at least one other job outside the slaughterhouse.

But Hinshaw instead pointed to the fact that for “some time,” there had been no new cases and said there had been some talk of declaring the outbreak closed.

“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.

Workers had shared stories with CBC over the weekend, saying they felt unsafe in the workplace and were begging the government for a temporary shut down. 

Hinshaw said she’s been in contact with local public health colleagues who have been working to ensure workers at the plant are offered any culturally appropriate supports they need for isolation and testing, to reduce the risk of community spread. 

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour demanded a meeting with the premier and provincial labour minister to ensure workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks are closed down before workers die or infections spread.

“I’m going to remind them that their job is to protect the public, not to protect the profits of corporations at the expense of workers or the public,” Gil McGowan said in a statement Tuesday.

“I’m going to demand that they do their damn jobs.”

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