July 10, 2020

UCalgary researchers investigate COVID-19 outbreak at Alberta meat processors

Government of Canada-funded project is one of 6 led by O’Brien Institute for Public Health members aimed at addressing health challenges of pandemic
Cargill Facebook Courtesy Cargill Foods High River Facebook

A group of UCalgary researchers is looking into the impact of North America’s largest single location COVID-19 outbreak site, the Cargill meat processing plant near High River, Alta., which infected more than 1,500 people and left three dead.

Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, MD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), is leading the project. He says the research will focus on how the outbreak began, the factors which led to its rapid spread, and why it seems to have affected mostly new immigrant, refugee and temporary foreign worker employees, their families, and their communities.

The project will collect and share stories from Cargill employees and their families, along with frontline clinicians.

“Like an onion has many layers, a pandemic like COVID-19 has exposed many structural inequities and structural issues among our society and who is affected by COVID-19,” says Fabreau, an assistant professor in the Departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the CSM.

Goal is to prevent similar outbreaks in future

The goal of the research, which is funded through a one-year grant from the Government of Canada through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) competition, is to prevent a similar situation in the future, especially as many experts expect a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the fall.

While Cargill was the site of the biggest outbreak in North America, two of Alberta’s other meat processing plants, JBS and Harmony Beef, also experienced outbreaks.

“We think that, predominantly, the employees of these meat processing plants that are affected are coming from newcomer communities. So, recently arrived refugees, resettled immigrants, and temporary foreign workers,” says Fabreau.

Though in Alberta, meat-processing plants had large outbreaks, there have been several outbreaks throughout the country’s agricultural and food production sectors, prompting Mexico to briefly stop sending temporary foreign workers to Canada.

Newcomer perspective is important

The project will collect and share stories from Cargill employees and their families, along with frontline clinicians, to understand the outbreak and how it affected workers and their families. Getting the newcomer perspective is important, Fabreau says, as this population is often excluded from research, and can experience significant barriers to accessing health care and support services in Canada.

The advocacy piece is simply trying to understand different community members’ perspectives, how this has impacted them and affected them. We hope that provides some empowerment and, in and of itself, becomes a piece of advocacy.

The team conducting the research includes the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, MD, along with Canada's health equity chair, legal scholars, and occupational health and safety researchers. Fabreau says having a large team for this project is needed to produce research quickly to be helpful for this pandemic.

“It is critical that we assess and learn from the public health system’s response to COVID-19. This project will help us better understand how to help prevent similar outbreaks in the future,” says Hinshaw.

The full team involved in the project — titled "Anatomy, Determinants and Impacts of the Cargill COVID-19 Outbreak Among Newcomers and their Families in Canada" — are Drs. Fabreau and Hinshaw, and Drs. Brent Friesen, MD, Jia Hu, MD, Kevin Pottie, MD, and co-applicants Amanda Alberga, Amir Attaran, Michael Aucoin, MD, Aleem Bharwani, MD, Annalee Coakley, MD, Alexander Doroshenko, MD, Christine Kennedy, MD, Nelson Lee, MD, Olivia Magwood, Kerry McBrien, MD, Katrina Milaney, PhD, Maria Jose Parrilla Lopez, PhD, Cheryl Peters, PhD, Paul Ronksley, PhD, Kate Snedeker, PhD, Rachel Talavlikar, MD, Peter Tugwell, MD, and collaborator Mussie Yemane.

More federal government funding

The full list of O’Brien Institute for Public Health members who received funding from the latest CIHR funding includes:

  • Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, MD, "The Anatomy, Determinants and Impacts of the Cargill COVID-19 Outbreak Among Newcomers and their Families in Canada." Award amount: $364,913
  • Dr. Kirsten Fiest, PhD, “Understanding and Managing the Effects of COVID-19 Restricted Visitation Policies on the Families and Health-care Providers of Critically Ill Patients.” Award amount: $298,769
  • Dr. Stephen Freedman, MD, “Household Transmission Dynamics and Viral Load among Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infected Children.” Award amount: $450,071
  • Dr. Gilaad Kaplan, MD, “Serological Testing to Outline Protocols for COVID19 in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: STOP COVID-19 in IBD.” Award amount: $636,750
  • Dr. Quan Long, PhD, “Inferring Undiagnosed Sources of COVID-19 Infections Using Viral Genomes.” Award amount: $99,000
  • Dr. Sheila McDonald, PhD, “Uncovering Longitudinal Patterns of Resilience and Vulnerability in a Pandemic: The All Our Families COVID-19 Impact Study.” Award amount: $263,415

Gabriel Fabreau is an assistant professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary and a member of the O'Brien Institute for Public Health.

  • Photo courtesy Cargill Foods High River Facebook


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.