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A parade float encourages residents to stay strong in High River, Alta., March 27, 2020, amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Health officials said that as of Friday, 358 cases in High River and elsewhere in the region were linked to the nearby Cargill facility.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

High River has become a hot spot for COVID-19 in Alberta, with hundreds of infections, including staff at a long-term care home, tied to one of Canada’s largest slaughterhouses.

Health officials said that as of Friday, 358 cases in High River and elsewhere in the region were linked to the Cargill facility. Many of the workers at the Cargill Ltd. plant are new immigrants or temporary foreign workers, whose jobs and shared living spaces make them especially vulnerable to infection. At least one worker is on a ventilator, the union for the plant says, and others are struggling with serious illnesses.

Cargill is a major employer in High River, a bedroom community of roughly 13,000 people located a half-hour drive south of the Calgary city limits. About 2,000 people work there and the facility supplies about 40 per cent of the beef processed in Western Canada.

Foothills County now has more cases than Edmonton, a city with more than 10 times the population. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has said that infections quickly spread among large households, and a local settlement agency said that temporary foreign workers often live together in large groups.

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The Seasons High River retirement home, which includes nursing care, said five staff members tested positive but no residents have been infected. Four of the infected staff live with Cargill workers.

Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said many of the plant’s employees are either temporary foreign workers or new Canadians, for whom English is a second language, though he didn’t know how many would fit into those categories. He said some workers who have contracted COVID-19 are in serious condition, including one who is in an induced coma and on a ventilator in a Calgary hospital.

Mr. Hesse said North American meat-packing facilities “are designed around efficiency and social proximity, not social distancing.”

“The lines are arranged in highly efficient ways and workers stand shoulder to shoulder, wielding knives. It’s loud, it's slippery, it's wet and there’s blood everywhere, especially on the slaughter side [of the operation],” he said, adding, “The plant hallways and lunch rooms and bathrooms are a certain size and they’re not rebuilding the plants to confront COVID.”

The union and Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats have called for the plant to be temporarily shut down to get a handle on the outbreak, but so far that hasn’t happened.

A Cargill worker, who has been recovering at home since he and his spouse became sick and tested positive for COVID-19, said he is afraid to return without assurances from the company that the plant is safe. The Globe and Mail agreed not to identify the worker, who is worried that speaking publicly would jeopardize his job.

Employees at the plant work in close quarters as they slaughter 4,500 head of cattle a day.

“How can they change the process? For us, we are doing sometimes 330 [heads of cattle] an hour – you can imagine that,” he said.

“There are some work stations that [are] too close.”

Jon Nash, president of Cargill Protein, a division of Cargill Inc., said in a statement that the company has scaled back operations and put in several measures to curb the outbreak, including staggering shifts, increasing distance between workers, checking employees’ temperature, providing face masks, prohibiting visitors and increasing cleaning. The company said some workers have taken unpaid leave.

Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. – which also makes and trades grain, processes other types of meat and operates other agriculture-related businesses – is one of the largest privately held companies in the world and employs 160,000 people in 70 countries, according to its website. It has 8,000 workers in Canada, where it has operations in six provinces.

The High River facility is one of several suppliers of ground beef for McDonald’s Canada.

“At this time, Cargill has assured us that they are confident in the resilience of their supply chain and will continue to meet our current demand for beef,” McDonald’s Canada said in an e-mailed statement Sunday.

Fariborz Birjandian, chief executive officer of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, which operates Foothills Immigrant Community Services in High River, said his agency is working with Cargill staff who have become infected or are required to self-isolate. He said it’s common for temporary foreign workers to live with half a dozen or more people in a single unit.

“Temporary foreign workers come here to make money and send it back home, so they are trying to minimize their costs by sharing rooms,” he said.

“That makes them very vulnerable. ... If one of them is infected, then the rest will be infected."

Mr. Birjandian said he hopes the Cargill outbreak serves as a wake-up call to other such facilities in an industry that relies heavily on temporary foreign workers or new immigrants, including resettled refugees.

Ontario-based Seasons Retirement Communities, which operates long-term care homes across the country, including in High River, said of the five staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19, four live with someone who works at the plant. CEO Mike Lavallée said in a statement that no residents have tested positive.

Mr. Lavallée’s statement said the High River facility has implemented a series of measures including daily health screenings for all residents, staff and visitors.

Alberta recorded 2,803 cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday and 55 deaths. One of those deaths was in High River: a man in his 70s at a long-term care home attached to the local hospital.

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