Workers at southern Alberta meat-processing plant begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations
CALGARY -- After some delays, the province has launched a targeted COVID-19 vaccination program for 15,000 meatpacking plant workers across the province including the Cargill plant near High River.
The Cargill vaccine clinic is being staffed by a team of Cargill employees including nurses, under the supervision of local physicians.
“Today, Alberta Health Services and The Primary Care Network, in collaboration with Cargill, began administering vaccines to our employees in High River,” said Dale LaGrange, general manager for Cargill’s High River facility. “We are thankful for the effort our healthcare partners are putting into this clinic and appreciate their shared commitment to protect the health and safety of our team. I’d also like to give a special thanks to our employees who have been working tirelessly throughout this pandemic to maintain a food supply for grocery stores, restaurants and Canadian consumers."
According to the province, the initiative was scheduled to begin earlier this month but was postponed as a result of shipping delays with the Moderna vaccine.
In the spring of 2020, the virus spread through the Cargill plant becoming, at one point, the largest outbreak in North America.
Two workers died of COVID-19, as well as the father of a worker.
"Today, many on our team are choosing to take a critical step toward putting a stop to COVID-19. Our thoughts are with everyone who’s been impacted by the virus, especially those who are sick and under medical care. We remain committed to supporting our community, employees and customers whose livelihoods and businesses have been impacted by the virus,” said LaGrange.
Cargill has faced legal challenges and criticism about workplace safety from the onset of the pandemic.
United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, the union representing the workers, say that 75 per cent of members have booked appointments.
"Society can see that the spread of the virus in this plant is a lot worse than in what we experience in everyday society," said Ricardo de Menezes, UFCW Local 401 director, southern Alberta. "People are in close proximity all day long, eight hours a day. Perhaps the temperature and the atmosphere allows for the virus to spread more quickly.
"It's scary. They're happy to be given this opportunity."
Researchers from the University of Calgary are leading a pilot program to provide translators on site and information in multiple languages to address potential vaccine hesitancy.
On Thursday morning, some 1600 workers had pre registered for their vaccine at the Cargill plant in High River.
It’s part of the provincial plan to vaccinate some 15,000 employees at 136 meat packing plants across Alberta.
One of the doctors who spearheaded the clinic is a physician in High River and said there were lines up and a positive mood among staff and health care workers throughout the day.
“It’s a fabulous day today I think for it’s been a long year," said Dr. Adam Vyce. “I expect the expertise and learning here we want to see distributed as soon as possible but the whole idea is to leverage the expertise from locals and that’s going to be key here.”
Dr. Annalee Coakley is also behind the clinic and said she hopes the workers, many who are often marginalized, know they are valued in society.
“We can perhaps upscale and spread it out across different large employers and different organizations in the community itself.”
Jaime Welsh-Rollo is a 25-year-old worker at the Cargill plant and said she was relieved to have gotten the vaccine because she has a five-year-old immune compromised son at home. She was also critical however, saying it took too long to prioritize meat plant workers.
“It felt we were pushed to the back because everyone driving past only thinks about the smell, they don’t think about the employees inside," she said.
Welsh-Rollo says people are happy to get the vaccine but it is also bittersweet remembering her colleagues who passed away and those impacted by the virus.
“It feels really good considering the losses we’ve had and knowing those families, Well it could have been prevented,” she says. “Knowing we’re going to prevent further damage feels so much better.”
An on-site vaccine clinic was also launched at JBS Foods Thursday which was also the site of a large outbreak last year.