COVID-19 outbreak declared at Cargill processing facility in Calgary

An outbreak of COVID-19 has been declared in northeast Calgary at a Cargill plant, a “further processing” facility that provides retail meat products for supermarkets across Western Canada.

Five cases of the virus have been confirmed at the operation, according to the latest provincial update.

Approximately 400 people work at the Case Ready facility, which is separate from the High River facility, which saw North America’s largest single workplace outbreak of COVID-19.

“Widespread testing is underway,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said in a tweet. “AHS and OHS [Occupational Health & Safety] have visited the plant and are making sure necessary measures are in place to reduce transmission and protect workers.”

Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson with Cargill, said the five individuals who have tested positive are now in isolation and are receiving medical care.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are working with AHS to offer testing to all of our employees over the next few days. We also continue to work closely with health officials to ensure effective prevention, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed within our facilities and beyond,” Sullivan said in a statement.

Union response

UFCW local 401 president Thomas Hesse, who pushed for stronger safety measures at the High River facility, recently said that the meat plant had since greatly improved safety.

But since getting into the “earliest stages” of investigation at the Calgary Cargill facility, Hesse said the union has already run into roadblocks.

“Cargill does not want to disclose the names of the individuals so we can support them. We want to get them appropriate medical help, assist them with CERB … there might be all sorts of advocacy issues,” Hesse said. “And Cargill is saying, well, it’s a private matter.

“It isn’t a private matter. They work there, we are their union. They might be new Canadians and might struggle with English.”

UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse says it’s possible the union will ask for a plant closure in the coming days should the outbreak spread. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio-Canada)

The Calgary facility does not have the pre-existing history of the High River facility, Hesse said, and physical distancing, staggered start times and installed barriers should help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“But Cargill’s at a bit of an intersection and they have to decide, in the shadow of what happened in High River, whether they’re going to fix their mistakes and be leaders now or just continue to watch this happen and potentially continue to grow. So they need to be co-operative with us.”

Hesse said it’s a possibility the union may ask for a plant closure should it feel the outbreak is likely to grow.

Previous outbreak at High River

Earlier this year, more than 950 employees at the High River plant tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 1,560 cases were connected to the facility. That number made it, at one point, North America’s largest single workplace outbreak of COVID-19.

Three deaths were linked to the plant: 

  • Hiep Bui, a 67-year-old woman who had worked at the plant for more than two decades.
  • Armando Sallegue, the 71-year-old father of a worker at the plant. He was visiting from the Philippines.
  • Benito Quesada, a union shop steward who had worked at the plant for more than a decade.

From left: Benito Quesada, 51; Hiep Bui, 67; and Armando Sallegue, 71, all died of COVID-19. Their deaths were linked to an outbreak at the Cargill slaughterhouse near High River, Alta. Quesada and Bui were workers at the plant; Sallegue was the father of a worker. (UFCW 401, Action Dignity, Arwyn Sallegue)

In July, a Calgary law firm filed a class action lawsuit against Cargill Ltd., alleging Cargill ought to have known “that the lack of protective measures [at its facility near High River] would affect not only their own employees, but those close to them as well.”

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