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The Cargill beef plant in High River, Alta., on April 23, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta has convened a group to develop a playbook to better protect essential workers at facilities like meat-processing plants in light of more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.

The committee first met on Tuesday, about a year after Alberta detected its first case of COVID-19 and about two months after the province identified cases of the more troublesome variants within its borders. The group includes representation from employees and community social organizations.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected labourers at meat-processing facilities. These workers tend to be immigrants, unable or afraid to take sick days, doing their jobs in close quarters. About 10,000 people work in these plants in Alberta, giving the virus opportunity to quickly spread through vulnerable communities. The committee’s launch, for example, comes as a shutdown at the Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer threatens to stretch into its third week. So far, Alberta has linked 500 cases of COVID-19 to the plant, and 156 of those are active. Three deaths are tied to this outbreak, including two this week. The facility has about 1,800 employees; the outbreak started in November and escalated in January.

Brent Friesen, a medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services, leads the new group. It is inevitable that a COVID-19 variant will break into meat-processing facilities, he said, so the group must re-examine existing safety protocols and response strategies. Community organizations that can help navigate cultural and language barriers for workers will be key to containing future outbreaks, Dr. Friesen said.

“What we heard clearly from the discussions is that workers need to be linked with the supports so that they are able to safely isolate at home,” Dr. Friesen said. “It is certainly one of the missing links.”

Alberta did not establish a mass testing site for Olymel employees and their families in Red Deer until last week, after the plant voluntarily closed. There are active outbreaks at six meat-processing facilities in Alberta, including Cargill Ltd.’s slaughterhouse near High River. Last spring, that facility had the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in a Canadian workplace. At the time, employees told The Globe and Mail they felt pressure to work even if it meant defying public health guidelines, and that the company was slow to implement safety measures.

The working group includes officials from meat-processors; regulatory bodies such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; government departments like Alberta Labour and Immigration; primary care networks; public health and others. Dr. Friesen stressed the importance of employee representation.

“That engagement is essential for the preventive measures to work,” Dr. Friesen said. “They are critical in terms of the processes.”

United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents employees at Cargill and Olymel, will push for benchmarks that would force companies to slow or halt production at the plants, according to Thomas Hesse, president of the local 401. In addition to case numbers, health and safety officials need to interview employees, granting them anonymity, when deciding whether to trigger protective action at a site, Mr. Hesse said.

“So many of these workers are truly the forgotten.”

AHS has found two variants of concern in the province: B.1.1.7, which was first identified in Britain; and B.1.351, first identified in South Africa. The province said B.1.1.7 is spreading in the community. None of the cases have been linked to meat-processing outbreaks.

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