The Manitoba government is taking steps to control the COVID-19 outbreak in Brandon.
The province has increased the risk level in the Prairie Mountain Health Region, which includes the city of Brandon. The risk is now designated as orange, or restricted, the second highest response level in Manitoba
With the “restricted” designation, public gatherings will be limited to 10 people and the province is mandating the use of masks in indoor areas and at outdoor gatherings in the region.
In the rest of Manitoba, indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people and 100 outdoors. Masks are not mandatory.
There are about 100 active cases of COVID-19 in Brandon, including 61 employees at the Maple Leaf hog processing plant in the city.
Maple Leaf can continue to operate, despite the new designation for the Brandon area, mostly because the packing plant is not the source of transmission.
“We’re still not seeing evidence of intra-facility transmission,” said Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Brent Roussin.
On Thursday, Manitoba announced 33 new cases of COVID-19. More than half, 17, were in the Prairie Mountain Health Region. Brandon has been a hot spot for the coronavirus for several weeks and the province decided to increase the risk level for the entire region.
A percentage of people have “lost touch” with the fundamentals of preventing COVID-19, Roussin said. Large groups of people in western Manitoba are gathering at parks, backyards and beaches without following rules around physical distancing. There are now several “clusters” of cases in Brandon and the surrounding region.
“We’re seeing multiple clusters that are not necessarily connected. That’s an indication we’re seeing some community transmission…. It was enough, and for a long enough period, to make a decision to raise that (risk) level…. We want to get these numbers under control.”
On Wednesday, Maple Leaf announced that it’s suspending pork exports to China from the Brandon plant because of Chinese government protocols.
“The protocol requires any plant reporting a COVID-19 positive case to suspend exports to China temporarily,” Maple Leaf said in a statement.
The company is taking the steps, even though there’s no risk of getting COVID-19 from pork.
“Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have been unequivocal about the fact that COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through food products,” Maple Leaf said.
The company is taking steps to control the spread of COVID-19 in Brandon, such as giving away masks to people in the community.
At the plant, Maple Leaf is keeping workers in cohorts to reduce the risk of transmission.
The company has asked a large number of employees, who may have been exposed to the virus, to self isolate for two weeks. That has reduced the number of available employees at the pork plant, the largest in Canada.
“The company also has been impacted by short-term increases in absenteeism. Maple Leaf Foods believes this is a short-term situation and not a material financial event, given the diversity of the company’s markets.”
If Maple Leaf was to shut down the plant, even temporarily, it would have an immediate impact on Manitoba’s hog industry.
The plant can process 90,000 pigs per week. If it closed, 10,000 to 15,000 pigs would not be shipped to the plant every day. That would quickly create a backlog and producers would run out of room inside barns to house the additional pigs.