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1-in-4 Alberta COVID-19 cases now tied to meat plant, as outbreak spreads to nearby First Nation

Canada’s largest outbreak of COVID-19 linked to a single site — an Alberta meat-packing plant — has now spread to a nearby First Nation, a local official says.

There are now 15 cases of COVID-19 within Stoney Nakoda Nation — 14 in Eden Valley and one in Morley. The Nation is located west of Calgary and east of Canmore along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Ryan Robb, CEO for Stoney Tribal Administration and the deputy incident commander for the Nation’s COVID-19 response, said contact tracing has led public health officials to believe some of the cases are related to the Cargill meat-packing facility in nearby High River, as some Nation members work at the plant.

That plant is the location of Canada’s largest outbreak tied to a single site, with 1,084 cases, representing nearly 25 per cent of Alberta’s total COVID-19 cases. 

“Much like every other community, we’re taking all the precautions we can,” Robb said. “We’ve managed to make it as long as we have, and hopefully we’ll be able to contain those outbreaks we have now.”

There are three bands under Stoney Nakoda Tribal Administration, Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley, located on three reserves in southwest Alberta, Eden Valley, Morley and Bighorn. The Nations’ total population is around 4,000 people.

Bearspaw First Nation Chief Darcy Dixon said in a statement posted to the Nakoda Emergency Management Website Friday that the first three community members who had tested positive were in isolation at home. That number was updated to 15 on Monday.

“Although this news may feel disheartening, the fact remains that our Nations have done an amazing job at limiting the spread of COVID-19 through our communities,” Dixon said.

“Our Nation is made of strong and resilient people.”

Drive-through testing is available in Eden Valley and Morley, and an isolation centre was set up weeks ago to accommodate up to 150 people if necessary. Robb said the Nation was the first to have an isolation centre up and running in Canada.

Employees at the Cargill meat processing plant raised concerns about public health measures not being followed two weeks before a COVID-19 outbreak forced the plant to close. 1:39

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety launched an investigation into the Cargill outbreak after a worker at the plant died.

Some employees at the facility have accused the company of ignoring physical-distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation. Union representatives have called for an independent or criminal investigation into the workplace.

Cases have spread into the broader community, including a seniors’ home in High River.

It’s not known how many members of Stoney Nakoda work at the plant but 710 of the plant’s roughly 2,000 workers have contracted the illness. 

Curfew, roadblocks on First Nation

To slow the spread of COVID-19, officials are trying to keep visitors off Stoney land by installing no trespassing signs and roadblocks. Locals are encouraged to keep to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew unless they must be out for work. 

Robb said while Eden Valley only has one entrance, Morley has about 20 entrances to monitor, and is located between Calgary and Banff so it can be a popular spot for visitors to stop.

“We are asking our neighbours and friends to understand that we’re trying to minimize COVID-19 as much as we can,” he said. 

Messaging to encourage members to physical distance and wash their hands frequently is also being posted to the Nation’s social media channels in both English and Stoney.

Nearby Tsuut’ina First Nation has yet to report its first positive case of COVID-19 but has introduced fines for those who break its curfew during the state of emergency.

“We must take all steps to prevent COVID-19 from being brought in from the high-risk zone of Calgary. This is a first approach on protecting our borders,” a notice posted to the Nation’s website read.

Of Alberta’s 4,696 cases, 3,257 are in the Calgary zone.

Ottawa has committed $306 million to support Indigenous communities during the pandemic.

First Nations across Canada have implemented curfews, lockdowns and checkpoints in efforts to keep residents safe.

Experts have expressed concerns that the pandemic could disproportionately hit Indigenous communities, which could be at higher risk for negative health and economic outcomes.

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