Balzac plant hit again as Calgary area sees spike in COVID-19 cases

The main entrance to the Harmony Beef facility near Balzac, Ab, north of Calgary is shown on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Alberta reported 158 new cases of the novel coronavirus Friday, setting recent highs in single-day case counts in both the province and the Calgary region.

The Alberta Health Services Calgary zone is home to 89 of the new cases, the second-largest spike in COVID-19 cases in the region since May 2, when the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Alberta was subsiding.

Meanwhile, the 158 new cases mark the second-highest count in Alberta since early May, and the highest since July 17.

The new cases come from just under 11,000 tests, also nearly setting a new high-water mark in the province, with Alberta only having processed more tests in a single day once before. About 1.4 per cent of tests reported Friday returned positive, a rate on the high end of those Alberta has recorded over the past two weeks. In the Calgary zone, however, more than two per cent of tests returned positive.

Despite the surge in Calgary zone cases, the AHS Edmonton zone still leads the province with 544 COVID-19 cases. The Calgary zone has 435 of the 1,185 active cases in Alberta.

No new deaths from COVID-19 were reported Friday, leaving Alberta’s death count from the virus at 237. As of Friday, there are 44 Albertans in hospital with the coronavirus, seven of whom are in intensive-care units — a decrease in total hospitalizations from Thursday.

Also Friday, Alberta reported that a coronavirus outbreak at the Harmony Beef meat-processing plant had flared back up after previous cases at the same facility in March and May. Thirty-eight workers at the plant, just north of Calgary in Balzac, have tested positive for COVID-19 during this new outbreak.

A similarly sized outbreak

took place at Harmony Beef in early May

, and the plant

suspended its slaughter in March

after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency withheld its inspectors from the plant when a worker tested positive for COVID-19. About 440 people work at the Harmony Beef plant.

Harmony Beef spokesman Crosbie Cotton said it was disappointing to see the new cases. He said impacted workers are self-isolating and production at the plant will be reduced by 50 per cent next week.

“These are the first cases in four months. There hadn’t been one case,” Cotton said. “All of our safety steps we’ve implemented have been working. We gave employers a three-day weekend to thank them for their hard work and it appears this may have come back after the weekend.”

The union representing workers at another meat-processing plant in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak is calling on the Alberta government to temporarily halt operations.

Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said workers at the Lilydale chicken processing plant in Calgary feel unsafe after 19 of the plant’s workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Health and government authorities, company officials, and union representatives have closely monitored this evolving situation,” Hesse said in a statement. “Unfortunately, in spite of recent interventions, positive case numbers continue to increase. Whatever is being done is clearly not enough. The risk of spread is too high, and the possible costs are too grave.”

Sofina Foods, which operates the Calgary Lilydale plant, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

High-profile coronavirus outbreaks at meat-processing plants gripped Alberta in the first few months of the pandemic.

An outbreak at Cargill’s High River plant was Canada’s largest, linked to more than 1,500 cases and three deaths.

The JBS meat-processing plant in Brooks, meanwhile, recorded more than 650 cases. Both outbreaks resolved in late May.

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Twitter: @jasonfherring

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