COVID-cases are climbing at Red Deer’s Olymel, but the meat plant will not temporarily shut down

Red Deer’s Olymel meat processing plant will not temporarily shut down following a large COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that led to one death, says a company spokesperson.

There are now 98 Olymel workers with active cases of COVID-19 — and another 125 workers isolating at home because of potential contact with the infected, said Olymel spokesperson Richard Vigneault.

The Red Deer facility is producing at half capacity as a result, Vigneault added. “There has been a slow-down in operations. We are at half volume because we need everyone to (fully) function.”

On Friday, when 80 active COVID-19 cases were reported at the Red Deer plant, Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union No. 401, called for a “circuit breaker” to keep the virus from spreading further.

Hesse urged that the pork processing facility be shut for two weeks while workers continue to receive pay.

But Vigneault said Olymel has instead opted to keep working with Alberta Health Services, the union, and Occupational Health and Safety to do everything possible to reduce cases without a shutdown.

“We hope the numbers come down this week for the sake of our employees,” said Vigneault.

He expressed his condolences to the family of the one worker who died of the virus on Jan. 28. “It’s unfortunate and very sad,” Vigneault added, noting grief assistance is being provided to co-workers.

Last week, the company confirmed a new “cluster” of COVID-19 cases started on Jan. 20. Olymel and Occupational Health and Safety are still investigating how it started.

Hesse had suggested the outbreak could be linked to Olymel ramping up production and recently hiring a number of employees. He’d also heard that proper social distancing was not happening at Olymel during lunch breaks.

But Vigneault said no definitive cause has yet been found.

He noted that AHS reviewed health practices at the plant and found Olymel has “robust processes in place” to limit the spread of illness within their facility.

AHS released a statement last week confirming that Olymel has strict protocols regarding distancing, PPE, disinfection and other safety measures. After a smaller outbreak of 20 active cases at the plant in November, additional preventative measures were implemented to enhance employee safety, stated AHS, which pledged to continue working closely with the company to identify areas for improvement, “should they arise.”

AHS provided on-site COVID-19 testing at the plant last week. But this week, sick workers are being told to stay home and get tested off site, said Vigneault.

Before the most recent outbreak, 36 people at the facility had tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

Vigneault said 1,850 employees work at the Red Deer plant.

By Lana Michelin

[email protected]

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