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A Maple Leaf Foods employee says he feels "depressed and unsafe" on the job, and is calling for the Brandon pork processing plant to shut down for two weeks and all its employees to be tested for COVID-19.
The man, who did not want his name or department identified for fear of retribution, said Tuesday he and other employees are convinced there has been workplace transmission of the novel coronavirus — because at least one worker who tested positive had no outside contact with the other Maple Leaf cases.
Public health officials and the company say the Brandon plant has passed third-party inspections and there is no evidence of coronavirus spread in the workplace. A Maple Leaf spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday four more workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
"I feel very depressed and unsafe," the concerned employee said, through an interpreter. "At the factory, there are over 2,000 employees and we don't know (how many) contracted the virus."
On Tuesday, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. vice-president of communications and public affairs Janet Riley said a total of 26 Brandon workers have now tested positive for COVID-19. They're among a cluster of at least 64 active cases in the west Manitoba city.
Three of the four new coronavirus cases reported Tuesday in Manitoba were in Prairie Mountain Health region, which includes Brandon. Public health officials would not say if the three are part of the Brandon cluster or are workers at Maple Leaf.
Meanwhile, officials maintained the virus is not being spread at the plant, and have identified it only as a "business in Brandon," which they've praised for going beyond recommended guidelines and having more employees self-isolating than required.
"I feel very depressed and unsafe. At the factory, there are over 2,000 employees and we don't know (how many) contracted the virus." – Concerned employee
Shared Health didn't respond to the Maple Leaf worker's claim transmission of the virus has occurred in the workplace: "Case investigations are ongoing to determine possible COVID-19 exposures. When the investigations are completed, additional information will be provided as needed to inform people of any public health risks."
Despite Maple Leaf passing inspections and receiving praise from public health, the change room, washroom and break room can get so crowded safe physical distancing is impossible at times, the employee said, adding not all workers wear face masks when they should.
"During the work, it's OK," he said. It's before and after and during breaks when there is a problem.
"Many people are changing in there... some don't wear the mask and some take it off when they change clothes," said the man, who has worked at the plant for a decade.
The cafeteria is also an issue, he said. "There is no social distancing. Space is less than one metre... The distance is very close and we have to take our masks off to eat."
The company said Tuesday it has taken steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including requiring employees to wear face coverage during the commute to and from work, including in carpools, and "100 per cent face coverage in all areas of the plant." It has added new lunch rooms, including four trailers and "another incremental new space," installed dividers in all lunch rooms, are monitoring for compliance, and performing daily and periodic spot audits, Riley said in an email.
"Based on the independent, third-party validation of our practices at Brandon, and our own assessments, we are confident that the plant can continue to operate safely," Riley said.
The long-time employee at the plant is not at all confident. For worker safety, he said, it should close for two weeks so everyone can get tested.
"I'm very worried about the virus," he said. "Right now, there are many new immigrants who came to the factory and they're always together, many with big families."
(Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin has stated many times testing people without symptoms isn't very useful — a person who tests negative one day could develop symptoms and test positive the next.)
Since it opened, Maple Leaf in Brandon has relied on workers recruited from abroad.
"They are in situations where workers live together, and where they live with their big family together," said the Maple Leaf worker, a former immigrant himself from China. "They worry about the safety of their families."
However, he is not afraid of catching the virus at home or in the community.
"I'm not very worried about shopping or going out... I protect myself very well. I feel OK and I can control that. At work, I can't control that. I have to meet (in close quarters) with my colleagues," he said. "You don't know if they're carrying virus."
In the wake of the recent COVID-19 case totals, the man said he hasn't felt stigmatized as a Maple Leaf worker but knows others who have.
A coworker told him his wife's "colleagues asked her to get a COVID test."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 6:38 AM CDT: Adds missing words
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