Tight workplaces emerge as major source of coronavirus spread
Long-term care homes are ground zero for COVID-19 cases in other parts of the country, but in Alberta cramped working conditions are emerging as the top source of spread.
As of Wednesday there were 580 infections linked to the Cargill plant in High River — including 440 workers at the plant — and 96 infected at the JBS plant in Brooks.
There were also 25 Albertans infected at Imperial’s Kearl Lake work camp (workers from the camp have also brought the virus to B.C., Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia).
Combined, those 701 cases represent about 20 per cent of Alberta’s 3,401 confirmed cases and nearly double the number linked to long-term care.
(The death toll in care facilities is much higher, currently 44, because older patients are more vulnerable.)
Deputy minister of Labour and Immigration Shawn McLeod said Occupational Health and Safety has commenced investigations at both Cargill and JBS, including probing the potential of the employers’ non-compliance with coronavirus-related safety protocols.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw conceded the province didn’t look at “the whole picture” when trying to contain the virus at Cargill and failed to consider spread through carpooling and cramped households.
Lessons have been learned, according to Dr. Hinshaw. She said the province is taking a “holistic” community approach to containing the spread at JBS, which remains open. A worker at the plant has died, but it is not yet known whether they were infected with COVID-19.
UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said workers at Cargill are feeling “grief,” “anger” and “fear” after the death of their coworker.
He slammed Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety for refusing UFCW’s earlier requests to shut the Cargill plant down and for conducting a virtual inspection rather than in-person.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the UCP should have acted sooner to protect workers, especially considering many staff at the Cargill plant are newcomers and temporary workers with language barriers.
“Ultimately, there must be a full accounting of what steps were taken and when, but more importantly we need to take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen elsewhere,” Notley said.