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COVID cases among Maple Leaf plant workers in Manitoba increases, but no closure planned

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Manitoba’s top doctor says stricter regional restrictions are possible as a cluster of COVID-19 cases in the province’s second-largest city grew to 64, with more than a third of them workers at a hog-processing plant.

Maple Leaf Foods said Monday that 23 of its employees in Brandon had tested positive for COVID-19, though neither the company nor public health officials believe the virus has been spreading within the workplace.

Manitoba reported 16 new cases on Monday, bringing the provincial total to 558. There are currently 196 active infections.

Chief Medical Officer Brent Roussin said there is some evidence of community transmission in Brandon, though most cases are linked to a known source.

“Our approach is to not have widespread restrictions, (but to) take a much more surgical approach,” Roussin said.

He said officials have been closely monitoring the Maple Leaf plant, though there’s nothing to suggest virus spread within the facility.

“The company is going beyond public health recommendations and is having a larger number of workers self-isolating than what was recommended by public health,” Roussin said.

“We’re in regular communication with the company, which has been quite co-operative and continues to share information with us.”

Maple Leaf vice-president Janet Riley said pandemic protocols include daily health and temperature screening, mandatory face coverings and social distancing.

“Public health officials support our view that our workplace remains safe and that there is no reason to suspend operations,” she said in an emailed statement.

“Simply put, based on all the evidence, COVID-19 is not being spread at our plant. It is important to note that 144 members of our Brandon plant team have tested negative for COVID-19.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, which represents 2,000 Maple Leaf employees, has been calling for a brief halt to operations until outstanding COVID-19 tests for known virus contacts come back.

Union president Jeff Traeger said some of the positive cases have been among people working the same shift in the same department at Maple Leaf.

“And so I think it’s either a very strong coincidence or maybe they haven’t gotten it right–I don’t know.”

Either way, he said the plant should take a pause given how many workers carpool and take public transit to and from work.

Traeger said aside from refusing a shutdown, Maple Leaf has done a good job acting on recommendations to make operations safer. He added the company, union and government are discussing setting up testing at the plant.

He said the union is trying to avoid the “worst-case scenario” seen at the Cargill cattle slaughterhouse south of Calgary this spring, where nearly half the workers tested positive for COVID-19.

 

Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest said the Maple Leaf plant is by far the single biggest private employer in the community, but he would support a temporary closure if public health officials deemed it necessary.

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