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Inside a Covid-19 outbreak at a meat plant: ‘It is a miracle he is alive’

A dozen meat processing factories and up to 600 workers have been infected by virus

“He is very, very lucky to be alive,” she says of her husband. The Offaly woman Mary and her husband John (not their real names) do not want to be publicly identified.

John is one of dozens of workers at Rosderra Irish Meats, Ireland's largest pig meat processor who tested positive for Covid-19, the coronavirus disease, in one of the biggest outbreaks at any workplace in the country.

Meat plants have been badly affected because of the close proximity staff work on rigid production lines and because of the number of workers, often foreign nationals, who share rental accommodation outside work, contributing to the spread of the virus.

On Tuesday, there were 12 clusters – each defined as two cases or more – at meat plants in the State, accounting for 500 cases out of more than 23,000 known Covid-19 cases.

Trade union Siptu says as many as 600 meat processing workers have been infected and that up to 15 workers have been hospitalised.

John was one of them. His health deteriorated rapidly over just one week in March.

He developed a bad cough on Friday, March 20th, after finishing work. It worsened until, the following Thursday, he was finding it hard to breathe. His wife called an ambulance.

Pulled through

John was brought to Midland Regional Hospital in Tullamore. The next day, Friday, March 27th, he was moved into the intensive care unit. By the following Tuesday, he was on a ventilator, the first Covid-19 patient to be ventilated in Tullamore. He remained on it for 16 days. Mary was convinced John would not survive because of regular calls she received from a doctor in the hospital.

John is a diabetic. Figures released by the Department of Health this week showed that of Covid-19 patients with underlying health conditions, diabetes was the third most common condition among patients infected with coronavirus who ended up in hospital ICUs.

Ultimately, John pulled through and was moved out of ICU on April 16th and the Covid-19 ward on April 29th before being discharged on May 8th – 49 days after he first took ill.

“It is a miracle he is alive. He lost a world of weight – 13 kilos,” said Mary.

She is convinced he caught the virus in Rosderra's factory in Roscrea where he has been a long-time employee.

“The only place he could have got it was the factory. There were only the two of us living here: he doesn’t go to pubs, he goes from work to home, work to home, work to home,” she says.

There was no policing of toilets, sinks or locker rooms. It was like a cattle mart, everyone was going in on top of each other'

In the same seven-week period John was ill, the number of clusters in workplaces rose from three to 35, one third of which are meat plants. In the Dáil on Thursday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin described the scale of outbreaks at meat processing plants as "gravely serious".

Cases of Covid-19 in meat plants are not unique to this State.

In Northern Ireland, a female worker in her 50s at the Moy Park poultry plant in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, died this week after contracting the virus. At least 30 meat-packing workers have died of Covid-19 in the United States and more than 10,000 have contracted the disease.

As the Republic embarks on a slow return to the “new normal” of living with this deadly virus still in the community, more workplaces will be reopening and having to balance a return to business with managing the health and safety of staff and customers.

Rosderra Meats, an essential food business that never closed, is an example of the challenges other companies could face in the weeks and months ahead.

On Thursday, April 30th – 35 days into John's hospitalisation in Tullamore – Sinn Féin TD for Laois-Offaly Brian Stanley raised concerns in the Dáil about what had gone on at Rosderra and at its plants in Roscrea and Edenderry. Out of about 350 workers in Roscrea, up to 140 of them were out sick and 120 had tested positive, he said.

‘Allowed to spread’

About 60 cases were confirmed at the Edenderry factory this week, with further results pending, after close to 600 staff were tested on Monday.

“Workers had to battle with management to get measures of any kind put in place, but they are still being denied two-metre distancing on the factory floor. There is congregating and no separation in the locker rooms or washrooms,” Stanley told the Dáil last month.

“The virus was allowed to spread within that factory. That should not happen,” he added.

He complained that no prior instructions were issued to workers, many of whom were not English-speaking. Many workers at Rosderra in Roscrea are from Moldova and share accommodation with each other. A Rosderra spokesman, who organises translations for workers, said the firm had trained and briefed all staff in their relevant languages on Covid-19.

Several workers who spoke to The Irish Times confirmed Stanley’s claims.

“There was no policing of toilets, sinks or locker rooms. It was like a cattle mart, everyone was going in on top of each other,” said one worker.

Another who tested positive said: “I couldn’t have got it elsewhere. I had withdrawn from the outside world before I got it so it had to have come from the factory.”

He said the fact that so many workers at Rosderra tested positive tells its own story.

From about March 16th, the plant introduced temperature checks as staff entered the factory and employees were asked if they had symptoms but workers say there was no social distancing on the factory floor at the time.

“I don’t know how you social distance in a meat plant; it is not possible,” said one worker.

The company has since installed partitions between workers but has had to scale back production, processing 200 instead 400 pigs an hour, because so many staff were out sick.

Stanley says that even when the HSE came in to carry out mass testing at the plant on April 24th and 25th, some workers who were later to test positive were allowed back into the factory.

“Some of those workers were standing directly beside, shoulder to shoulder, with workers that were not infected. That was completely out of order,” Stanley said.

Rosderra’s spokesman said he could not comment on this.

In a statement, the company said that it was working with the HSE, the Department of Agriculture and occupational health professionals to ensure all health, safety and sanitisation requirements are being strictly adhered to minimise the spread of the virus.

“The safety and welfare of our employees is of the utmost importance to Rosderra Irish Meats and we continue to be extremely vigilant with our protective measures for infection control,” the company said.

Measures taken include supervised distancing, mandatory face coverings and staggered breaks and start times to reduce the possibility of gatherings.

Despite these actions, the firm has been criticised for not doing more, earlier.

“It is clear that action was not taken quickly enough,” said Stanley. “When the first worker came down ill with Covid symptoms over six or seven weeks ago, there should have been more rigorous procedures put in place at that point and clear actions taken.”

Stanley said that just this week he was contacted by a worker at Edenderry who complained about getting just one disposable mask per day. Rosderra’s spokesman denied there were issues with providing adequate supplies of personal protective equipment to staff.

Cease production

The HSE declined to answer questions about Rosderra, saying that it did not comment on facilities with outbreaks to protect the privacy of workers.

Mary wonders why Rosderra did not close once Covid-19 cases rose as the Dawn Meats plant did when it had four confirmed cases in its boning hall in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath.

Rosderra's spokesman said that it has worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, HSE and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) from the outset but closure was never suggested.

“We were never advised to cease production in any of our plants,” he said.

The HSE said that there is “no numerical threshold” for the number of cases in a workplace to trigger a closure; the decision is based on “a risk assessment process”.

He has to learn to walk again. It will take a good 12 months to come back. He was walking on a zimmer frame up and down the ward'

The Government has published a protocol to help workplaces reopen safely ahead of a limited reopening of businesses on Monday. Firms can be closed if they do not comply.

“Closing down would be at the very extreme end of any enforcement power and the whole situation would have to be extremely critical at that point to do that but there are lots of points in between,” said Dr Sharon McGuinness, chief executive of the HSA.

As for the many sick employees at Rosderra, the company said that those who had tested positive are “recovering well or have recovered and returned to work”.

“Regrettably, we have staff across the business who are self-isolating and are awaiting tests or test results, staff who have tested positive from mid-March, some of whom have returned to work following the HSE agreed self-isolation protocol,” said Rosderra.

Employee privacy meant it could not comment on John’s case, the spokesman said.

Mary says the company’s behaviour was “absolutely disgusting” in that they must have known how ill John had become in late March but it wasn’t until April 24th before all employees were tested.

The company responded that it had worked “from the word go” with State authorities and various mitigation measures were introduced from “very early on but obviously everything was being ramped up and developing as the situation was developing”.

Mary’s focus now is on her husband’s recovery.

“He has to learn to walk again. It will take a good 12 months to come back. He was walking on a zimmer frame up and down the ward. His breathing is all different,” she said.

There are no plans for him to return to work at Rosderra.

“I wouldn’t let him back in a million years,” she said.

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