COVID-19 cases on the rise at southern Alberta feedlots

Kolk Farms Ltd. near Iron Springs, Alta., is one of many feedlots taking steps to keep the COVID-19 virus out of their operations, such as postponing the annual Christmas party until later in the winter.  | File photo

Public health officials encourage businesses to focus on staff rooms, vehicle sharing and moving animals in tight spaces

Five southern Alberta feedlots have had clusters of COVID-19 among staff and support personnel and Alberta Health Services has advised on special precautions.

In a letter to the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, AHS said it has seen “an increasing trend” of COVID-19 infections at feedlots since early November, which aligns with a rising number of cases throughout the province.

Staff rooms, vehicle sharing and moving animals in tight spaces were each identified by AHS as areas where feedlots should focus attention.

“These are situations where AHS Public Health South Zone have seen transmission within feedlot operations,” its letter said. Janice Tranberg, ACFA chief executive officer, said the organization is using the letter as a call to action, encouraging feedlots to maintain their emphasis on worker safety.

Feedlot operator Leighton Kolk of Kolk Farms Ltd. near Iron Springs, Alta., said pandemic protocols were implemented during the first lockdown and now it’s a matter of “trying to keep a practical sort of approach from that one going forward so that we continue to keep a balanced approach, whether there’s panic in the media or not.”

The occasional lunches and dinners held for the feedlot staff have come to a halt for now, he said. As for the annual Christmas party, “we’ve kicked it down the road.

“We can have Christmas in January or Christmas in February because it’s not like anybody is really leaving to go anywhere, so we don’t have to work around that schedule.”

The AHS advice indicated that feedlot staff and visitors tend to let their guards down when in the staff room, where snacks are often shared and people tend to hang around.

While advising people to keep their distance, AHS drew an analogy with the cattle business. People not in an individual’s cohort “are like the rank steer that does not want to be caught to be treated,” it said.

It also identified car-pooling and joint travelling in trucks or tractors as a danger point. As for handling cattle in alleys, chutes and barns, where masks may not be worn, it is also potentially dangerous.

“Outdoors is generally a lower risk activity but those closer proximity interactions, where there may be more exertion (breathing heavy), is when aerosols can for farther.”

Kolk said he was not surprised to learn COVID-19 has made its way into feedlots.

“It’s probably in a lot more places than we think.”

Tranberg agreed. “I don’t think it surprises anybody. It had to happen at some point and as the rural communities are getting higher infection numbers, it was I suppose bound to happen at some point.”

Should illness be identified at a feedlot, AHS said, operators should at minimum be able to provide names, addresses, phone numbers, date of last shift, roles and positions of staff, workers and visitors who were potentially exposed.

The ACFA has tips and guidelines specific to feedlots on its website at https://cattlefeeders.ca/covid-19.

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