The beef supply chain likely breathed a collective sigh of relief with news that Cargill plans to hold an on-site COVID-19 vaccine clinic for workers at its High River plant around April 20.
With the rise of variants across the country, moves to vaccinate meat plant workers can’t come too soon. The Canadian Meat Council has been calling on all governments to prioritize plant workers in vaccination plans. Marie-France Mackinnon, vice-president of public affairs and communications for the Canadian Meat Council, writes via email that the council’s members have spent well over $50 million retrofitting plants and protecting workers.
“But with the surge in cases and variants across the country, the critical tool is for our workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Packing plant employees are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 infections, due to close quarters at work and the fact that many are part of large households. Last spring, workers at the High River plant suffered a massive outbreak that infected roughly half of the plant’s 2,100 or so employees. JBS’s Brooks plant saw a crushing wave of infections at the same time, and together the two outbreaks created a backlog of cattle that took months to clear. While plants now have access to protective equipment such as masks and have implemented procedures to stem infections, processors across North America have struggled to contain outbreaks.
Cargill’s clinic will be the first mass workplace COVID-19 vaccination in Canada, the Globe and Mail reports. Alberta Health Services will offer immunization options to meat processing plant workers across the province, ranging from on-site clinics to block bookings at current sites. Alberta Health has also offered training to Cargill’s occupational health nurses, who will be administering the shots, according to an email from Alberta Health provided to Canadian Cattlemen.
Alberta Health isn't able to run on-site clinics at all facilities at the same time. “We will be starting at Cargill in High River, the site of one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, and are currently exploring ways to expand this program,” the email states.
The Globe and Mail reports that Dr. Annalee Coakley, a Calgary-area physician, helped organize the Cargill clinic. Coakley told the Globe that she expects to vaccinate the plant’s workers over three days. Cargill has run on-site flu clinics, she adds, and so already has equipment such as freezers for the vaccine on-hand. In the weeks following, Alberta Health plans to apply what it’s learned from the Cargill pilot to on-site clinics at other plants, as long as vaccines are available.
Ontario is also prioritizing immunization of plant workers, and some in the most affected regions have already been contacted, Mackinnon writes. The Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph region, home to a Cargill plant, is now booking vaccine appointments for essential workers, including plant workers, the region’s public health website states. Ontario has also previously announced plans to offer on-site workplace vaccinations, Mackinnon adds.