A novel coronavirus outbreak at a cattle slaughterhouse just outside of Brooks has contributed to a significant jump in COVID-19 cases in the small, southern Alberta city, where one meat-processing worker is confirmed dead from the disease and 3 per cent of the total population are infected.
The situation at the JBS Canada facility is the second major outbreak at a beef-processing plant in southern Alberta this month. Together with the Cargill Ltd. plant in High River, they are responsible for more than a quarter of the province’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. The two plants produce nearly 75 per cent of the country’s beef.
A week ago, Cargill announced that it was temporarily closing its meat-processing plant. JBS has been running at reduced capacity. No one from the company was available for comment on Sunday.
The United Food Commercial Workers Canada union, which says food-processing plants are “battlefields” in the fight against COVID-19, argues that any plant with an outbreak should be closed for two weeks. However, the workers at these plants have been declared an essential part of maintaining Canada’s food supply chain.
Given the scale of the outbreak in Brooks – where there are now almost 500 cases in a community of about 15,000 – Alberta Health Services officials will establish the province’s first drive-through assessment centre specifically for people who are asymptomatic in the city.
“We have a pretty significant outbreak based on our population,” Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita said.
Communities adjacent to meat-packing plants are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to surges in COVID-19 cases. Workers at meat-processing facilities – who labour in close quarters, often doing physically gruelling tasks – have been among the groups hardest hit by the disease.
Alberta has a total of 4,480 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Alberta Health said Sunday that there are a total of 984 cases linked to that Cargill outbreak, including 667 workers. At the JBS facility, located just outside of Brooks in the County of Newell, Alberta Health said 205 workers have been infected. Two workers, one from each plant, have died from COVID-19. A second death in Brooks was a household contact of a worker at the JBS plant.
Brooks is home to 90 per cent of the workers at the JBS facility and the city has seen its COVID-19 numbers rise rapidly in recent days. The province says about half of the cases in Brooks are linked to the JBS outbreak.
Mr. Morishita said he was concerned by what he saw happening in High River, which earlier faced a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases linked to its processing plant. He said he asked Alberta Health officials to establish the assessment centre. The drive-through centre will run in Brooks for three days this week.
Given the high numbers in Brooks, the mayor believes continuing asymptomatic testing will be necessary to gauge the numbers of infected, isolate them and to try to flatten the curve. It’s also in line with the recent arguments by a number of epidemiological experts, who now believe that COVID-19 is far more widespread than official numbers show.
“If we don’t do that, the numbers do have the potential to rise," Mr. Morishita said.
The mayor added that other steps are being taken to deal with the high number of cases, including stepped up enforcement of physical-distancing rules and isolating people infected with or exposed to the coronavirus in hotel rooms.
The plant, which Brazil-based beef-processing giant JBS bought in 2013, has been an economic engine for Brooks for decades. The plant normally has 2,600 workers that can process a million cattle a year, Mr. Morishita said.
The city has seen its ranks bolstered with immigrants from around the world to fill jobs at the plant. Mr. Morishita said 100 languages are spoken in Brooks. Some workers live in cramped rental quarters with people they’re not related to, but changes JBS has made in hiring practices in recent years mean more are now working alongside and living with their families, he added.
“Toronto says they’re the most diverse place on the planet. But if you break it down statistically, we think we are,” the mayor said.
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