Alberta has delayed plans to vaccinate meat-packing employees against the coronavirus in a mass clinic at Cargill Ltd.’s slaughterhouse in High River, where an outbreak a year ago infected around 1,000 people and led to three deaths.
The government informed Cargill of the change Tuesday, two days before the planned start of the clinic. The province said it did not have enough vaccine supply to offer doses to Cargill’s 2,100 employees in High River, though it didn’t say when the mass vaccination clinic would be rescheduled.
“There is too little vaccine supply,” Premier Jason Kenney told the legislature Wednesday afternoon. The government had to postpone the clinic, Mr. Kenney said, because Moderna’s next vaccine shipment would be short about 65,000 doses. Vaccines from that shipment were “destined” for the Cargill clinic, he added.
The Cargill vaccination clinic has been in the works for about two weeks and the original plan, according to one of the doctors behind the campaign, was to give employees the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Doctors and community organizers have spent time addressing questions from the employees, most of whom are racialized immigrants who often face barriers in accessing health care.
About 80 per cent of Cargill’s High River employees had filled out the paperwork necessary to be immunized against COVID-19 at the on-site clinic, according to company spokesman Daniel Sullivan.
“We are really disappointed with the delay,” he said in an interview. “Our team will be ready to take action when the time comes and the vaccines are available.”
Last spring, Cargill’s High River operation was the site of the largest workplace outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada. The virus continues to infect meat packers across the country, and the plant in High River is once again in the midst of an outbreak.
The clinic would have given the employees easy access to vaccines. It would have been Canada’s first major workplace immunization effort, which advocates argue is necessary to protect vulnerable workers in places such as factories and warehouses across the country. The clinic’s organizers arranged similar campaigns at meat-packing plants across Alberta after word got out about the Cargill effort.
Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan said Moderna doses that were supposed to arrive this week will come in early May. The Cargill clinic will be rescheduled as soon as possible, he said.
“Health officials met with Cargill management today to update them and assure them that their staff will be vaccinated as soon as supply permits, along with other meat-packing plants and other workplaces in Phase 2C of our rollout plan,” he said in a statement.
Alberta has about 152,500 doses of Pfizer and Moderna on hand, Mr. McMillan said, and about 159,000 appointments for those vaccines in the coming seven days. The province will receive another 119,340 Pfizer doses from Ottawa next week, according to the federal government’s delivery schedule. The AstraZeneca vaccine is, as of now, only available for adults over 40.
The Alberta government prioritized meat-packing employees in its vaccine queue, putting them in Phase 2C of the province’s rollout. The province said earlier this month that health care workers in 2C would be eligible for their first dose beginning April 12 and that others in 2C would be eligible in the coming weeks.
In a statement Tuesday, the government said staff and inmates at correctional facilities, as well as staff and residents at homeless shelters, are now eligible for vaccination. The website detailing the vaccine rollout shifted these groups into the first wave of 2C constituents, but meat-packing employees remain among those in 2C who are not yet eligible.
Most health-care workers, adults over 65, people with certain health conditions and people in the first block of Phase 2C in Alberta can access vaccines produced by Pfizer or Moderna. First Nations, Métis or Inuit people born in 1971 or earlier can also access these vaccines. All adults over 40 are eligible for the AstraZeneca shot, which the province had trouble moving prior to lowering the age restriction this week.
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