Alberta’s plans to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to about 15,000 workers at meatpacking plants across the province will start this week, provincial Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday.
The province had initially said in early April that it would open COVID-19 vaccination clinics at meat-packing plants across the province as early as April 20 or sooner, starting with a pilot project at a Cargill operation near High River.
Alberta’s vaccination plans to target meat packing plant workers were pushed back due to a delayed shipment of 64,000 doses of Moderna vaccine originally scheduled to arrive last week.
However, Shandro tweeted Monday morning that the rollout would start this week to the workers at the 136 meat-packing plants across the province.
Shandro said he would provide more details at a news conference at 3:30 p.m. Monday, but said a combination of on-site and community locations would be used to help vaccinate the workers as quickly as possible.
“I am relieved and pleased that we can now offer vaccines to these essential workers,” he tweeted.
“The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on these workers, and we’re grateful to them for the work they do to supply food for Alberta and the entire country.”
Multiple deadly outbreaks at meat-packing plants
The Cargill plant — which has about 2,000 employees and processes around one-third of Canada’s processed beef supply — had North America’s largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single site last spring. The outbreak was linked to three deaths with positive tests among at least 950 employees at the Cargill facility and hundreds more in the community. A second outbreak this spring has been linked to dozens of cases.
Cargill is currently facing a criminal investigation, the first known instance in Canada of police investigating a workplace-related COVID-19 death.
The company is also facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with employees. They allege the company operated without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings.
Neither the lawsuit nor the allegations in the criminal complaint have been tested in court.
CBC’s own investigation last spring found numerous workers who said they continued to work elbow-to-elbow and felt pressured to show up when sick as Cargill tried to keep its meat-processing lines moving. The province had deemed the plant safe to operate at the time, after health and safety investigators conducted an inspection by video call.
Other meatpacking plants in the province have also had outbreaks, including the Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer, which had more than 500 cases and at least three worker deaths earlier this year. That plant stayed open with Alberta Health Services’ approval for weeks after the first death as the outbreak continued to spread among workers until closing temporarily in mid-February.
And in another of the biggest outbreaks, at the JBS Foods Canada facility in Brooks, more than 600 workers caught COVID-19 in an outbreak one year ago. Despite calls from the plant’s union to close, the site dropped its production from two shifts per day to one but never fully shut down.
Recent outbreaks also include the Cargill Case Ready in Calgary, Lilydale Sofina Foods in Edmonton, and Sunrise Poultry Processors in Lethbridge.
Dr. Annalee Coakley with the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in Calgary had been organizing physician volunteers for the Cargill immunization clinic and was deeply disappointed by the earlier delay.
Some of Coakley’s patients were affected by the Cargill outbreak last year and she said she’s been working to rebuild their trust in the health system.
“They felt let down by society in general, the health system in particular,” she said.
Alberta tops 20,000 cases, leads country with per capita cases
News of the targeted vaccinations came as Alberta’s total active COVID-19 cases surged about 20,000 for the first time since the peak of the second wave in mid-December.
Alberta has by far the highest per capita cases at 455 active cases per 100,000 people, nearly twice as high as the second highest, Ontario, which has 275 active cases per 100,000.
On Sunday, there were 594 people in hospital with the illness, an increase of 10 from Saturday. That includes 140 in intensive care unit beds, an increase of 11.
There were 17,025 tests completed Saturday for a positivity rate of around 8.6 per cent.
Alberta identified another 932 variant cases, making up 61 per cent of the province’s 20,136 active cases.
Walk-in appointments for the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot will no longer be available to most Albertans Monday, Alberta Health Services said, as active COVID-19 cases surged.
AstraZeneca vaccine bookings multiplied after Alberta lowered the age of eligibility for the shot to those 40 and over last Monday.
Shandro says, if supply keeps up, Alberta is on track to offer all Albertans over 18 their first vaccination dose of two by the end of June.
Currently, anyone eligible over the age of 40, regardless of where they work, can book an appointment across the province to receive an AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.
Those with eligible health conditions or who are over 65 can book appointments to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.
- Take a look at a timeline of the 2020 Cargill outbreak: