Residents of the Edmundston region are on edge after a COVID-19 outbreak at a poultry plant forced the area back to red-phase restrictions.
Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, announced 24 new cases in the Zone 4 region on Sunday.
The jump in cases included 11 linked to Nadeau Poultry after mass testing, bringing the entire region to 76 active cases.
While the Edmundston region had been on high alert over the past week, the single-day spike came as a surprise.
Deputy Mayor Eric Marquis said two dozen cases were more than he could have anticipated.
“We were aware that we were pretty close to red after the meeting we had with Dr. Russell this past Friday,” he said in an interview.
Marquis said he is urging residents to stay home as much as possible.
“I’m pretty sure if we do that we’re going to be back to orange and we’re going to be back to yellow in the upcoming weeks,” he said.
Some businesses close
The move to the red phase means some businesses in the area are forced to close, including gyms, spas, barbershops, hair salons and bars.
Cathy Pelletier, executive director of the Edmundston Chamber of Commerce, said many anticipated the rollback to red.
Some restaurants had already switched to take out and delivery under the orange phase. Under red restrictions, dining rooms must close.
Pelletier said the business community remains hopeful the red phase will be brief and quickly improve the situation.
“There will be some impact in the community for the businesses, the hair stylists, the gyms, everything that has to be closed once again,” she said. “But a lot of them are pretty resilient.”
Retail businesses can remain open under COVID-19 operational plans.
Plan in place for poultry supply chain
The Madawaska region produces most of New Brunswick’s chicken and is home to three processing facilities.
Thomas Soucy, the president and CEO of Groupe Westco, said his poultry operation in Clair is also at risk of COVID-19. The company has employees that commute from Quebec and truck drivers that travel across the country but has yet to report a case of the illness.
“It could have happened to anyone,” he said in an interview.
“We feel the pain the industry and our competitor is experiencing.”
A poultry plant in Berwick, N.S., was forced to halt operations last month after an outbreak including six cases.
Soucy said the facilities in the Madawaska region helped out Eden Valley Poultry during the temporary closure. Groupe Westco would be prepared to step in if Nadeau is impacted.
“The last thing we want to have to do is be forced to euthanize the chickens at the farms,” he said. “There’s not just us, the plants in Quebec, we all work together to make sure there’s the least impact possible on the food chain.”
Nadeau Poultry is about 40 minutes west of Edmundston within the municipality of Haut-Madawaska.
The processing plant has about 240 employees, according to Pelletier.
Jean-Pierre Ouellet, the Haut-Madawaska mayor, said the sudden outbreak shows how no one is sheltered from the pandemic.
“We need to be even more careful in trying to avoid spreading it,” he said.
Teachers expected schools to close
New Brunswick’s red phase guidelines initially included moving schools online.
But Education Minister Dominic Cardy announced a change in plans on Sunday.
“We’re working to keep students in school as much as possible to help support our public health goals,” he said.
The New Brunswick Association of Francophone Teachers said its members are concerned about returning to the classroom and the decision to keep schools open came as a surprise.
President Gérald Arseneault said teachers expected schools to close under the red phase and were prepared to switch to virtual learning.
“All of a sudden, only a few minutes before the government announcement, they told us it wouldn’t be the case,” he said.
“We can’t forget that our teachers are also parents and worried like the rest of the community about this situation.”
If a case is confirmed at a red-phase school, it will close for three days. This will allow time for contact tracing and turning the building into a testing site. Students and staff will also be actively screened each day and those with one symptom will be asked to stay home.
Pelletier said the community is upset over the decision to keep schools open. She’s planning to keep her son home for a couple of days to see how the situation unfolds.
She said about 30 part-time employees at the Nadeau poultry operation are students at Cité-Des-Jeunes-A.-M. Sormany, the high school in Edmundston.
“A lot of people are worried why the schools are still open,” Pelletier said.