Olymel temporarily closing Red Deer pork plant due to COVID-19 outbreak

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Olymel is temporarily shutting down its Red Deer pork processing plant due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

“Despite the testing protocols and sanitary measures already in place, as well as the close collaboration of Alberta Health Services to deal with a resurgence of positive cases of COVID-19 among plant employees, Olymel management believes that the conditions are no longer assembled to continue normal operations in a safe and efficient manner,” the company says in a statement issued Monday.

Olymel says it has notified the union representing workers at the Red Deer plant (UFCW Local 401) and that it will be shut down for an indefinite period of time. The union had called for a temporary shutdown of the facility on Feb. 5.

“Over the next few days, plant management will mobilize the staff necessary to cease operations and complete the facility closure as soon as possible,” the company says. “The sanitary measures will continue to be in effect at the plant during the shutdown and Olymel management will be in contact with officials at Alberta Health Services to continue working closely with this organization.”

Alberta Health confirms that as of Monday there are 192 active cases linked to the outbreak, which was first declared in November. Total confirmed cases stemming from the outbreak sit at 326. There has been one death as a result of the outbreak. That person was identified in a CBC News on Monday as Darwin Doloque, 35, who passed away on Jan. 28.

“Olymel sincerely hopes that all employees at the Red Deer plant who have tested positive for COVID-19 soon regain their health,” their statement reads. “The company will follow up with all employees to ensure their quarantine period is being respected and will strongly encourage all staff to get tested before returning to work.”

Olymel says it will also continue “ongoing investigations” into what may have caused such a large outbreak of COVID-19 cases linked to their Red Deer plant since January 20.

A spokesperson with Alberta Health Services said last week that Olymel has been compliant with public health orders and has been in contact with AHS on a daily basis.

But in a confidential letter to Olymel management dated Feb. 11, AHS raised concerns that as many as one in five workers at the plant may be infected and spreading COVID-19, and that “more measures are now required to control this outbreak.” AHS asked Olymel to have all employees who have not tested or tested negative for COVID-19 since Jan. 15 to “get tested as soon as possible.” They said employees that have tested positive since Jan. 1 and have since isolated do not need to get retested at this time.

Hog suppliers of the Red Deer plant have been notified of the situation and all pending deliveries are suspended until further notice.

“I am glad the plant owners have finally listened to calls from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and are shutting down the plant,” said NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley. “We have seen a memo from Alberta Health Services indicating one-in-five workers at the plant may be infected with COVID-19 already and all efforts must be made to stop further spread. I hope the Olymel plant remains closed until the safety of all workers there can be assured.”

“A worker death and an outbreak involving half of the staff wasn’t enough for the government to order the closure of the facility,” said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

“It was only after the union took the workers’ stories and the confidential AHS letter to the media that the company reluctantly agreed to a temporary closure. But there was still no government order. Both the government and the company were more concerned about maintaining production and managing their public images than protecting the lives of workers or mitigating the threat that the outbreak posed to the broader public. It’s disgusting and shameful.”