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Manitoba's chief public health officer cut short his vacation Thursday to deliver the bad news of 30 new COVID-19 cases, including a cluster of 18 in Brandon.
The large number of cases in Manitoba's second-largest city are linked to a person who travelled from Eastern Canada and didn't strictly follow self-isolation guidelines, Dr. Brent Roussin said.
"The person was to have self-isolated and it wasn't done perfectly and we saw transmission occur," he said. "Self-isolation isn't only staying home, it's also limiting your contact with other people in the home," he added, without providing more details.
Eleven other cases were reported in the province's Southern Health region. One new case was reported in Winnipeg.
It was the highest single-day coronavirus count in the province since April 2, when 40 cases were reported.
"Today's case numbers are a reminder that COVID 19 is not done with us — that we still need to take... fundamental precautions," Roussin said.
Four of the new cases in Brandon are people employed at the Maple Leaf Foods Inc. hog processing plant, reported Local 832 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents them.
The union wants the plant shut down, at least until Monday. An estimated 76 plant workers have been tested thus far.
"We strongly believe that the most prudent action is to cease production until more test results come back and we have a better sense of the trend," Local 832 president Jeff Traeger said in a letter Thursday to provincial Health Minister Cameron Friesen.
However, the province decided against a shutdown of the facility, which employs 2,300 workers.
"We're not seeing evidence of transmission occurring in the workplace," said Roussin, who wouldn't provide any details about the tested employees.
"The industry itself has gone above and beyond what public health has recommended."
Friesen told reporters that a decision to protect workers' safety, such as closing the plant, will be based on evidence and accurate information that's verified by public health officials.
Maple Leaf says it's taking precautions and has no plan to cease production. The company says the workers appear to have contracted the virus in the community.
"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 company said in an email to the Free Press Thursday.
"Given our daily health screening, temperature monitoring, social distancing and the personal protective equipment all team members wear while at work, we feel confident that our plant environment is safe."
Health officials said Thursday that 10 Manitobans were hospitalized with COVID-19, five of them in intensive care. There are 118 active cases. The total infected so far in the province since the pandemic began is now 474. With the newly identified infections, the five-day test positivity rate rose to 0.90 per cent.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government should be providing more precise information about the location of COVID-19 cases and whether they are tied to specific workplaces.
While the province says there is no evidence that the coronavirus is being spread at Maple Leaf, the fact remains that "more and more employees are falling sick at that plant," he said. Both he and and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont supported the UFCW's call Thursday for a temporary closure.
The government's reluctance to name institutions where infections have occurred (unless it needs the public's help to trace contacts) may become "a big concern" once school season arrives, Kinew said.
Parents will want to know if there are cases linked to their child's school or daycare, he said. "Right now, it seems as though you'll only be notified if there was a close contact (to your child)."
Lamont said close attention must be paid to the Maple Leaf plant because most of the large COVID-19 outbreaks in North America have been tied to either meat-packing plants or personal-care homes.
Among the 30 new COVID-19 cases announced by the province on Thursday, four were children aged nine and younger -- two from Brandon and two from the Southern Health region.
Four other young people, aged 10 to 19, were also identified in the latest group of infections -- three from Brandon in the Prairie Mountain Health region and one in Southern Health.
Of the 30 new cases, six are people aged 60 and older, including one man in his 80s.
Among the rest, six cases were people in their 20s, six were in their 30s and four in their 40s. None who were infected was in their 50s.
If the plant itself isn't the source of the virus spread, the focus should nonetheless be on its workforce, many of whom are likely living in cramped quarters, he said.
"There needs to be a full screen of all the employees," he said.
Maple Leaf said its plants have "transformed" how they operate through social distancing, with "plexiglass separators on production lines where possible, marks on floors to control movement in certain directions and efforts to decrease density, like staggered shifts and additional break space."
After learning of the positive test results, Maple Leaf implemented a COVID-19 response plan and asked several other "team members" to self-quarantine. The company notified employees, the Canada Food Inspection Agency and the union, a spokesperson said.
"After a careful and detailed review of the circumstances around the cases, it appears very likely that the team members contracted COVID-19 in the community," the spokesperson said, adding the company is in contact with the four infected employees, who are all recovering at home.
But it took just a few positive cases at other food processing plants in Canada and the U.S. to turn quickly into major outbreaks that resulted deaths, the union president said.
"We're trying to prevent a disaster," said Traeger.
Some workers have said they're scared of catching the virus on the job, and Traeger expects to see the rate of absenteeism rise until their fears are allayed.
Three of the workers who tested positive worked in the same auxiliary department — not the slaughterhouse or on the production line. None of the four who've tested positive are being paid, contrary to what Traeger said the union was told earlier by a Maple Leaf manager.
"The company is not paying a salary to people who have COVID-19 or are self-isolating," he said.
Traeger said he can see why the company isn't acting quickly to close the Brandon plant that kills up to 18,000 hogs a day. It provides the pork to Maple Leaf's processing facilities across Canada, and closing it could cripple other plants.
"That's a lot of revenue," he said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
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