An outbreak at an East Vancouver chicken processing plant is a sign of how quickly things can go wrong if COVID-19 health restrictions aren’t taken seriously, said Premier John Horgan Wednesday.
Twenty-eight workers at the United Poultry facility on East Cordova Street have tested positive for the novel coronavirus since the first case was detected Sunday.
“Workers were coming to work because they were fearful they would lose wages and not be able to meet their expenses,” said Horgan.
“We cannot have people putting others at risk for fear of economic consequences to themselves. That’s irresponsible, but we have a collective responsibility to deal with that.”
It was a message pounded home by both Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in their Wednesday briefing.
How Vancouver Coastal Health is working to investigate COVID-19 cases at poultry factory
Henry said the initial inspection of the plant found that several of the employees were working despite having respiratory symptoms.
She said until there is a vaccine for the virus, anyone who feels mildly ill, even if they believe it is just allergies, needs to stay home.
“We also expect that employers need to pay attention to this and need to be responsible. You must have measures in place to ensure that everyone who is working is healthy and can keep a safe distance from each other in the workplace,” she said.
“We do not penalize employees for staying home if they are ill during this pandemic.”
How the virus got into the plant and spread between employees remains under investigation by Vancouver Coastal Health and the Canada Food Inspection Agency.
The plant remains shut down due to the outbreak and to ensure “appropriate precautions and changes of the workflow could be done to safely protect the workers in that facility,” said Henry.
Fraser Health said Wednesday it had looked at other plants owned by the same company in its jurisdiction, but hadn’t found any crossover with staff.
The Vancouver outbreak is the latest in a series around Canada that have put the spotlight on the meat processing industry.
B.C. reports spike in COVID-19 cases
A Cargill plant in High River, Alta., that produces nearly 40 per cent of the country’s beef was shut down this week after being linked to more than 450 COVID-19 cases and one death.
Prof. Sylvain Charlebois with Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab said the meat industry poses specific challenges during the pandemic.
“Employees tend to work close to each other inside the plant,” he said.
“Now that’s being addressed across the country, but still the environment inside a plant is usually very cool and humid and viruses tend to like that kind of environment.”
Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly said those hurdles can be overcome.
But she said in the case of the United plant, safety measures obviously broke down.
“At this plant, staff were provided with gloves and with plastic shields to protect them, so those types of measures can of course mitigate in situations where there can’t be two metres’ distancing,” she said.
“But clearly something went wrong here that allowed for transmission of COVID-19 so that’s why we’ll need to follow up with the inspectors responsible for this plant.”
— With files from Grace Ke
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