Death of Red Deer man linked to COVID-19 outbreak at meat plant, says Alberta Health

Alberta Health is linking the death of man in his 30s to a COVID-19 outbreak at a Red Deer slaughterhouse, which was first declared months ago.

The man died on Jan. 28. Alberta Health, which reported his death last week, said there were no known comorbidities.

As of Friday, 156 cases were linked to the outbreak at the Olymel meat processing plant. That includes 80 active cases, 75 recovered and one death, Alberta Health confirmed.

Alberta Health Services declared an outbreak at the plant on Nov. 17.

It is testing Olymel employees on-site at the plant to identify anyone who may be asymptomatic. There is also a local assessment centre, which has been available to employees since the outbreak was declared.

AHS said support has been provided for employees and their families who cannot self-isolate at home and need spaces within the community.

“Public health inspectors have visited the site on multiple occasions since the outbreak to review their mitigation measures and safety protocols, and continue to be in ongoing contact with the site,” Heather Kipling, AHS communications director for the Central Zone, wrote in an email.

The zone’s medical health officer and public health nursing teams have also been providing guidance to help minimize spread of the illness.

Kipling added that Olymel has “robust” processes and safety protocols to limit the spread of the illness.

Close to 1,850 employees work at the Olymel plant. Of those, 103 — all close contacts of employees who have tested positive — are in isolation and awaiting testing, an Olymel spokesperson confirmed.

Although Alberta Health confirms the man’s death is linked to the current COVID-19 outbreak at the plant, the company has not yet reached that conclusion.

“There would be no formal relation now, but we’re waiting. We’re expecting a medical examiner report,” said Richard Vigneault, a corporate spokesperson for Olymel.

He added that additional employees have been brought in to enforce safety measures through the outbreak.

“We’ve reinforced our sanitary measures, of course, to keep control of this outbreak and we’ve obtained the co-operation of everyone at the plant,” Vigneault said.

He says the company is investigating whether a potluck meal held on-site had contributed to a recent surge in the spread of cases at the plant.

Union investigating outbreak and death

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, which represents employees of the plant, has been following the outbreak since it began and is investigating the circumstances around the man’s death.

It has been surveying member opinions about a potential closure of the plant, but a formal request to close the plant has not yet been made by the union.

“It’s very, very disturbing, and we don’t want to end up in another, you know, another Cargill situation. I mean, the disease is better understood now than it was some months ago, but it’s no less deadly,” said Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW Local 401.

UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse says the union is looking into the details around the death that Alberta Health has linked to the Olymel outbreak. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

In mid-April, hundreds of workers at a Cargill meat plant in High River, Alta., were infected with COVID-19. RCMP are investigating potential criminal negligence in the death of Benito Quesada, a worker at the plant whose death was linked to the outbreak.

In October, an Olymel meat processing plant in Vallée-Jonction, Que., south of Quebec City was reported to be dealing with an outbreak of 80 confirmed cases and one death.

As for the Olymel outbreak in Red Deer, Hesse is concerned investigations within workplaces like this one focus on the origin of transmission by employees and not the risks and potential failure of protocols.

“These places are at high risk for transmission, and even if transmission happens outside of the workplace, it’s still alive there,” Hesse said.

“It’s a place where it can be spread very, very rapidly. Bottom line is, employers and governments need to turn their attention to workplaces.”

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