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Considering the risk meat packing plants pose when it comes to the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s troubling the public is not getting clearer information from the province on the COVID-19 outbreak tied to Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon.
Dozens of people who work at the pork processing plant have tested positive for the disease. The exact number remains in dispute. Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said Monday 52 employees from the plant have tested positive, with 34 active cases. However, the union representing workers – United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 – disputes that number, saying according to company records, 74 have tested positive, of which 62 remain active.
Little turns on the difference between the two counts. It’s the confusion and lack of clarity that is at issue at a time when accurate information is critical if the province wants buy-in and co-operation from the public on fighting the disease.
There have been calls from the union (and from opposition parties) to shut down the plant temporarily in order to get a better handle on the spread of the virus. However, Dr. Roussin has insisted repeatedly there is no evidence of transmission within the plant itself. As a result, there’s no reason to close the plant, he said. Public health officials continue to monitor the situation closely. But so far, it appears workers were infected outside the facility, Dr. Roussin says.
But how do they know that? Contact tracing can provide good insight into how the virus has spread among clusters of cases, such as the one in Brandon. But if workers — some of whom may live together or socialize outside work hours — have infected each other, how does the province know with certainty that the transmission didn’t occur in the plant, including from asymptomatic workers?
There may be a reasonable answer to that question. If there is, Dr. Roussin hasn’t provided it. He has simply reported the results of his officials’ investigation.
Dr. Roussin has an obligation to provide a clearer explanation of why they stand so firmly behind their findings.
There is no reason to doubt the veracity of those findings. In the face of a crisis like a pandemic, people have to put a certain amount of faith in their public-health officials to steer them in the right direction. Still, considering Maple Leaf workers dispute the claim that there’s been no spread of the virus within the facility (and given that, intuitively, it’s difficult to believe no one has been infected at the plant considering the high number of cases), Dr. Roussin has an obligation to provide a clearer explanation of why they stand so firmly behind their findings.
Meat packing plants around the world have been struggling with outbreaks of COVID-19, including dozens in the United States and many in Canada. In some cases, those outbreaks have led to the temporary closure of plants. The shutdowns come at a great cost economically, including to producers who supply the processing plants. Such action should only be taken where there’s clear evidence of transmission within the plant, and only as a last resort. There may be other measures, such as partial closure or improved efforts to contain the spread within the facility, that could be taken.
Either way, Maple Leaf workers, the people of Brandon and the public at large deserve a more comprehensive explanation from provincial officials on why they’re so certain there’s been no spread within the plant. It’s time for Dr. Roussin to show his work.
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