Alberta plans to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to about 15,000 workers at meat-packing plants across the province starting this week, according to provincial Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

Cargill’s meat-processing facility in High River, Alta., is seen on Jan. 8, 2021. Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday that COVID-19 vaccinations for essential workers at the plant that had been delayed earlier this month will now begin Tuesday. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Alberta plans to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to about 15,000 workers at meat-packing plants across the province starting this week, provincial Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday.

Earlier this month, the Alberta government said it would open vaccination clinics at some of the 136 meat-packing plants in the province as early as April 20, starting with a pilot project at a Cargill operation near High River.

The plans were pushed back due to a delayed shipment of 64,000 doses of Moderna vaccine that Alberta Health had said was originally scheduled to arrive last week. At the time, the province had more than 200,000 unused vaccine doses, but Shandro said those doses had been allocated elsewhere. 

The health minister said Monday that the rollout will now begin on Tuesday and that a combination of on-site and community locations would be used to help vaccinate the workers as quickly as possible.

“I am relieved and pleased that we can now offer vaccines to these essential workers,” he tweeted.

“The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on these workers, and we’re grateful to them for the work they do to supply food for Alberta and the entire country.”

“The sooner we’re all immunized, the sooner we can get past the pandemic,” Premier Jason Kenney said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

Workers at the 18 federally regulated plants like Olymel in Red Deer and Cargill in High River will be immunized through Primary Care Network clinics, public health clinics, local pharmacies or AHS sites, the province said.

Once those clinics are complete, workers at those plants who have not yet been vaccinated, as well as workers at the 118 smaller, provincially regulated plants, will be provided with a letter establishing their eligibility for immunization. 

Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW 401, said the vast majority of workers the union represents want to be vaccinated — and he hopes this move helps with restoring trust in the health-care system. 

“This is a way for workers to take control of their own destiny, to make their own individual choice about vaccination, provide themselves with some protection. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle. We can’t vaccinate our way out of this. We still need safe workplaces,” he said.

Hesse said he’s glad to finally see acknowledgement that workplace transmission of COVID-19 is an issue.

“We’ve been sick of hearing this phrase, you know, ‘community transmission,’ which, of course can happen. But too often when politicians or corporations use that phrase, what they’re trying to do is avoid avoid the understanding that this is also a serious workplace issue.”

Multiple deadly outbreaks

The Cargill plant — which has about 2,000 employees and processes around one-third of Canada’s processed beef supply — had Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single site last spring.

The outbreak was linked to three deaths with positive tests among at least 950 employees at the Cargill facility and hundreds more in the community. A second outbreak this spring has been linked to dozens of cases.

Cargill is currently facing a criminal investigation, the first known instance in Canada of police investigating a workplace-related COVID-19 death.

The company is also facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with employees. They allege the company operated without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings.

WATCH | Family of Cargill plant worker who died speaks out:

The family of a Cargill meat plant worker who died nearly 2 weeks ago is speaking out this weekend. The 51 year old’s death has been linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 connected with the facility in Southern Alberta. With the economy beginning to re-open, they’re now calling on the company to make sure this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again. Our Alicia Asquith has those details. 3:28

Neither the lawsuit nor the allegations in the criminal complaint have been tested in court.

CBC’s own investigation last spring found numerous workers who said they continued to work elbow-to-elbow and felt pressured to show up when sick as Cargill tried to keep its meat-processing lines moving.

The province had deemed the plant safe to operate at the time, after health and safety investigators conducted an inspection by video call.

Other meatpacking plants in the province have also had outbreaks, including the Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer, which had more than 500 cases and at least three worker deaths earlier this year. That plant stayed open with Alberta Health Services’ approval for weeks after the first death as the outbreak continued to spread among workers until the plant’s temporary closure in mid-February.

In another of the biggest outbreaks, this one at the JBS Foods Canada facility in Brooks one year ago, more than 600 workers were infected with COVID-19. Despite calls from the plant’s union to close, the site never fully shut down, instead dropping its production from two shifts per day to one.

Recent outbreaks also include the Cargill Case Ready in Calgary, Lilydale Sofina Foods in Edmonton and Sunrise Poultry Processors in Lethbridge.

Dr. Annalee Coakley with the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in Calgary had been organizing physician volunteers for the Cargill immunization clinic and was deeply disappointed by the earlier delay.

Some of Coakley’s patients were affected by the Cargill outbreak last year and she said she’s been working to rebuild their trust in the health system. 

“They felt let down by society in general, the health system in particular,” she said.

Vaccine rollout ongoing

Meanwhile, walk-in appointments for the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine will no longer be available to most Albertans Monday, Alberta Health Services said. 

AstraZeneca vaccine bookings multiplied after Alberta lowered the age of eligibility for the shot to those 40 and over last Monday. 

Shandro said that if supply keeps up, Alberta is on track to offer all Albertans over 18 their first vaccination dose by the end of June.

On Monday, Alberta also expanded the number of people eligible for vaccination due to underlying health conditions. Now, youth born between 2006 and 2009 with qualifying conditions can book appointments for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Those with eligible health conditions or who are over 65 can book appointments to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.

As of Monday, 1,419,188 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Alberta.

Take a look at a timeline of the 2020 Cargill outbreak:

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