Union wants production halt at Manitoba Maple Leaf plant over COVID-19 cases

BRANDON, Man. — Manitoba's largest increase in positive COVID-19 cases in months has prompted a union representing employees at Maple Leaf Food Inc.'s pork processing plant in Brandon to call for it to cease production.

Thirty new cases were announced Thursday in the province, 18 of which are connected to a cluster in Brandon.

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The cluster includes four workers who tested positive at the pork plant.

There are 34 active cases in the Prairie Mountain Health Region, which includes the city about 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

"Today's case number is a reminder that COVID-19 is not done with us, that we still need to take those fundamental precautions," said Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer.

Roussin said there was no indication of workplace spread at Maple Leaf.

He said the Brandon cluster is linked to a person who travelled from Eastern Canada and didn't self isolate "perfectly" upon arrival in Manitoba.

While Roussin would not confirm where the traveller came from the province cautioned about possible exposure on a Montreal to Winnipeg flight on July 29.

Until Thursday, there had not been a major single-day increase in the province since 40 cases were announced on April 2.

Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, said in a memo Thursday that the union wants the company to stop work at the Brandon plant until Aug. 10 at the earliest.

"Until we have more results from the outstanding tests among our members at Maple Leaf," Traeger said.

One worker at the plant tested positive over the weekend and the union said three new cases Wednesday are non-production staff.

The union represents nearly 2,000 people at the pork plant.

Meat-processing plants were the epicentre of some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada outside of care homes. Hundreds of people tested positive during outbreaks at two southern Alberta beef-processing plants this spring.

There were three deaths linked to the Cargill plant in High River, Alta. It shut down for two weeks before reopening at reduced capacity. The JBS Canada plant in Brooks, Alta., operated with just a single shift each day for a full month.

Maple Leaf said in an email that a response plan was immediately implemented following the positive tests at the Brandon facility. The company said it appears likely the employees contracted COVID-19 in the community.

However, several employees were asked to self-quarantine.

All employees are given a daily health screening and have their temperatures monitored, the company said. Employees are also supplied personal protective equipment and are required to social distance.

"We will continue to operate our Brandon plant as long as we believe we can provide an environment that will protect the safety of our people while working," the email from Maple Leaf said.

COVID-19 cases in Manitoba had remained relatively low, with a current total of 474, but there has recently been an increase in infections.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the union had sent him a letter requesting the government conduct a full health inspection of the Brandon plant. He said it will be left to public health experts to make determinations about safety.

"We are not there in this case yet."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2020

— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

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