COVID-19 cases in two Melbourne meat processing plants increased again this week, with Victoria reporting its highest daily increase in coronavirus cases.
The Victorian Government announced it will be expanding testing in the regions and encouraged regional Victorians over the age of 18 to use a face mask when they leave their houses but cannot physically distance – such as on public transport or while shopping.
After recording 428 new cases overnight and three more deaths, chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said the state had “not turned the corner” in the pandemic.
“Worse than that, 428 cases does not just represent that we’ve got increasing numbers day on day, there will be dozens of individuals who will require hospitalisation out of these 428 people,” he said.
“Tragically there will be several who will require intensive care support and a number of people will die.
“And whenever we have a day with these numbers, that is the case, so it has to turn around,” he said.
“I have talked for some days about a hope that numbers stabilise, but also said there is no guarantee about that.”
Professor Sutton said there are a number of ongoing outbreaks with new linked cases that are partly responsible for driving up the numbers.
“When you’ve got so many outbreaks that help amplify transmission, they obviously contribute to the increase in numbers.”
He said these include 51 cases linked to Tottenham meat packer Somerville Retail Services and 32 cases to the JBS Australia abattoir at Brooklyn. Both sites are now closed.
There are now 160 cases linked to the Al-Taqwa College, 38 at the Menarock Life Aged Care facility in Essendon and 36 cases at the Estia Health aged care facility in Ardeer. Professor Sutton said there is also some stabilisation in other settings, including in some hospitals and aged care facilities.
JBS Brooklyn has transferred production to other plants
JBS Australia director John Berry said first and foremost, the company was concentrating on the safety and wellbeing of its workers and the wider community in which Brooklyn operates.
“Which is why we’ve been working closely with Victoria Health since the first cases were detected at our facility.
“But we’re also mindful of our obligations to our lamb and beef clients – many of whom we have longstanding relationships with that we are keen to safeguard,” he said.
“That’s why we’ve ramped up production at our other facilities to absorb the impact of the temporary closure of Brooklyn and have been in constant contact with our livestock suppliers to help them work through options and arrangements.
“We don’t take for granted the custom or the relationships we have with any of our primary producers – and we’ve really appreciated their patience as we work through this issue,” Mr Berry said.
Mr Berry said the company’s first priority in re-opening of the Brooklyn plant was to deep clean the facility, followed by working with Victoria Health to ensure the workplace is safe for the return of our employees.
“We’ll re-open when both Victoria Health and our own on-site managers decide it is safe to do so.”
He said the Brooklyn plant is the largest meat-processing facility in Victoria.
“It’s an important provider of jobs in that community – and an important contributor to Australia’s all-important meat export market.
“We are working around the clock to get it back up and running,” he said.
Mr Berry said since the start of the pandemic in March, the company has had a comprehensive COVID-19 safety program at all of its facilities, including the regular testing of all employees with state-of-the-art thermal temperature testing technology.
“We’re cooperating fully with Victoria Health as it seeks to trace the origin of the infections.
“While we’re unable to regulate the physical separation of our employees outside of the workplace, as part of a comprehensive and ongoing COVID-19 safety program that we established in March, we have gone to extensive lengths to minimise interaction between employees when they are at work including the strict physical separation of workers and their amenities between the different parts of the business.”
Recent cases reflect mobility more than a week ago
Professor Sutton said the new daily increase in cases reflected behaviours and mobility from 10 or more days ago.
“So of course there is a hope that these numbers stabilise in the coming days, towards the end of this week, that’s my hope.
“But no-one is being complacent here and we are all thinking about the additional measures that might be required if it doesn’t turn around,” he said.
“We are not just banking on the idea that if we wait long enough that number will stabilise and go down.
“So we have to bear in mind any additional measures that are important to help control the numbers.”