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A pedestrian bikes past United Poultry in Vancouver's downtown eastside, on April 23, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia will impose its own safety plans in the workplace after a COVID-19 outbreak at two federally regulated chicken processing plants in Metro Vancouver showed Ottawa failed to protect those workers, provincial health officials say.

Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, said on Thursday the outbreak demonstrates the need for provincial guidance on pandemic safety plans, which the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was supposed to have ensured were in place.

The investigation began with a single case of COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus, at United Poultry Co. Ltd. in East Vancouver, and spread to a sister plant, Superior Poultry Processors Ltd. in Coquitlam. Health officials believe some people were travelling between both facilities, and the two plants account for a total of 92 cases since the first one was identified on April 19. The cases include both poultry plant workers and federal inspectors.

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The Vancouver Coastal Health authority is responsible for tracing all potential contacts of the people at the two plants who got COVID-19. In a briefing this week, Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer for VCH, said her investigators went into United Poultry after the first worker tested positive.

“Our staff inspected that plant the next day, and it became obvious that plant, which is under the inspection of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), did not have a robust plan," she said.

"All federally inspected processing plants are required to have a plan to reduce the risk of COVID-19, but their plan was not adequate and wasn’t being executed adequately, and we identified that there were many ill staff working at that processing plant when we attended. We tested all the staff and we ordered the plant closed that day under a public-health order and it remains closed.”

CFIA inspectors are often responsible for inspecting multiple poultry plants.

Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents more than 4,000 CFIA employees, said his organization has been pushing Ottawa to limit the number of plants an inspector is required to visit to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

CFIA could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Henry told reporters that B.C. and Ottawa share responsibility for safety in those poultry plants – for food safety and for worker safety. “We would expect that they go hand in hand. But sometimes, people who are responsible for the food safety part may not recognize some of the key things that happened on the worker safety side of things,” she said.

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“In this case, we clearly needed to do more work on making sure that these plans for worker safety were more robust and were enacted in a more robust way. And that is what we are doing now, as part of our going forward in our new normal. When we start looking at other workplaces ... we are going to have provincial-level guidance, best-practice standards.”

Those standards will ensure worker safety during the pandemic as B.C. begins to lift restrictions that were imposed to curb the spread of the virus, she said.

Earlier this week, B.C. Premier John Horgan rebuked workers in the poultry plants – including the federal inspectors who were found by provincial health officials to be working while sick.

“What we discovered with the poultry facilities, for example, is that the majority of the cases that were connected to that one site were people that were still working, including the federal inspectors. That just can’t continue," the Premier said during a news conference.

On Thursday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the outbreak should serve as a broad warning, as B.C. prepares to begin reopening the economy. “What’s happened in the poultry industry in Vancouver and in Coquitlam is a warning to us about why we need to continue to be vigilant.”

Officials from United Poultry could not be reached for comment. On the company’s website, it says extensive monitoring of the workplace is part of the routine. “To ensure that every process is followed diligently, meticulously and correctly, we have doctors and inspectors on our staff who are on site at all times.”

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With reports from Mike Hager and Andrea Woo in Vancouver

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