High River and Brooks became COVID-19 hot spots after the virus was found in workers at nearby Alta. slaughter plants
The town and the city where most workers at Alberta’s two large beef processing plants reside have faced particular challenges as cases of COVID-19 multiplied.
The Cargill plant in High River is at the centre of the largest single pocket of cases in North America and the JBS plant in Brooks has also had hundreds of workers infected, with some traced to community spread.
Two people connected with the Cargill plant have died as has one person connected with JBS in Brooks.
As of May 7, there were 944 cases of the illness among Cargill plant workers and 826 had recovered. In Brooks, 583 cases among JBS workers had been identified with 466 recovered, according to Alberta Health Services data.
Barry Morishita, mayor of Brooks, said the outbreak has caused anxiety in the community.
“I think people are concerned. To that point I wish there was better data available because we could not get it confirmed with Alberta Health Services … that there was actual spread at the plant, like from worker to worker. We do know that there was community spread.”
A petition is circulating within Brooks to close the plant to stop viral spread and to implement inspections to ensure safety and sanitary precautions are being taken and “consistently upheld.”
As of last week, the petition had more than 18,500 signatories where it was posted online through Change.org. The population of Brooks, based on 2016 data, is 14,451.
The union representing most of the workers, as well as Alberta’s NDP opposition, have also called for plant closure citing worker health concerns.
Morishita is aware of the petition but said the city is relying on health officials to ensure safety.
“We’re counting on OH & S (Occupational Health & Safety) and public health and the federal inspection agencies to tell us if the plant is operating safely or not. We are more concerned with our community spread numbers and we’re dealing with that.”
As one response to the outbreak, Morishita said the city called for and obtained an asymptomatic test clinic, with ran for three days and tested about 3,500 people. He said about 10 percent of the total tested positive for COVID-19, indicating the need for those people to self-isolate even without symptoms.
Though the clinic ran for only three days, he thinks there is a case to be made for ongoing access to tests.
“If you look at any of the data … the more testing, the better off you are. So I think if we have the capacity, we should be using it up, especially in places where there’s outbreaks, like Calgary, High River, Foothills County, Okotoks, here. They should be doing more testing, not less, in my opinion.”
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta chief medical officer, said that as of May 7, 163,510 Albertans had been tested and efforts are underway to steadily to increase the total.
Morishita said 80 to 90 percent of JBS workers live in Brooks, unlike High River where many Cargill workers commute from Calgary and environs.
He has toured the plant several times since JBS took ownership in 2013. It was formerly owned by Lakeside Packers and then by XL Foods. The plant is located in the County of Newell, just outside the city.
“Since JBS actually took over, there have been improvements every year. We’ve been very pleased with the relationship that they’ve got with us,” Morishita said.
In the town of High River, mayor Craig Snodgrass is not accepting interviews and is communicating with the community through periodic YouTube videos.
In a May 6 video, Snodgrass said the number of people who have recovered from the virus indicate the town is “moving in the right direction.”
He noted with evident misgiving that High River has been identified as the sight of the largest single outbreak of COVID-19 in North America but said the response in handling related issues has been good.
“We have to commend everybody in this community, Cargill workers and the whole community, as to how well you have conducted yourselves and how we’re seeing the success of that,” Snodgrass said.