Covid-19 cases linked to Melbourne meat processing plant rise to 49 as questions raised about Victorian response to outbreak

A meat processing plant which now has almost 50 confirmed cases of Covid-19 was not told it could be dealing with an outbreak for three days after someone connected to the facility was diagnosed, according to a spokeswoman for the company.
The cluster of Covid-19 at the Cedar Meats processing plant has risen to 49 after an additional four cases were confirmed on Wednesday morning.
Cedar has maintained that the first case it was made aware of was a worker who attended Sunshine hospital on 23 April to receive surgery on an injured thumb. The worker later developed symptoms and was diagnosed around 25 April . A spokeswoman said the company was told about this on 27 April.
However, the Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed there was another person linked to the workplace diagnosed 24 hours before this.
Guardian Australia has been told these cases were the first indication of a possible cluster and the source of infection is still under investigation.
The department also confirmed another employee of Cedar Meats was diagnosed with Covid-19 almost a month earlier, on 2 April, however, the person had not been at the factory for four weeks. The Victorian chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said he did not believe this person was the source of the current cluster.
The health department maintains as soon as a case relating to the worksite was identified on 24 April it began contact tracing, in conjunction with the business, but Cedar Meats says it was three days before it was informed.
When Guardian Australia asked the spokeswoman for Cedar Meats about the person diagnosed on 24 April she said this was the first the business had heard about this case.
The first case we heard of was the Sunshine hospital We have very clear records that show we were first told on the 27th.
On Wednesday a staff member at a Footscray aged care home tested positive, having been in contact with a Cedar Meats worker whose last day of work at the meat plant was 26 April.
The chief executive of Doutta Galla aged care wrote to families on Wednesday confirming the staff member had tested positive.
The Victorian health minister, Jenny Mikakos, told reporters: This person I understand is a close contact of a worker at Cedar Meats.
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Meat processing plants have been hotspots for Covid-19 outbreaks around the world, due to the close working conditions.
Guardian Australia has asked for clarification from the department about when the factory was informed, but has not yet received a response.
Sutton told Melbourne radio station 3AW the two dozen health care workers who were in contact with the worker who severed his thumb were isolated immediately.
When asked why the factory workers werent also isolated immediately, he said: Well the workers at the plant needed to be identified as close contacts first, but then they, of course, were quarantined.
The Cedar Meat general manager, Tony Kairouz, said everyone was tested by 1 May, a week after the first cases considered to be part of the cluster were discovered.
The abattoir had a reduced kill on Friday 1 May and wound down operations in the following days with some staff still needed to process the animals at the facility.
The plant has now shut down for deep cleaning, with plans to reopen on 18 May.
The department also confirmed another employee was diagnosed on 2 April, however, the person had not been at the factory for four weeks.
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Despite this lengthy time gap, the Victorian opposition leader, Michael OBrien, labelled the Cedar Meat cluster Daniel Andrews own Ruby Princess.
Today we find out that there was a three weeks head start at Cedar Meats before anything was seriously done about it. How many more people got affected because the government refused to act when the first case became known?
OBrien also referenced unconfirmed reports the person diagnosed on 2 April had in fact worked at the facility more recently.
Today the chief health officer couldnt even confirm if the health department had checked with Cedar Meats whether that first case had been at work or not. The government is claiming that this person wasnt in work when he was infected, but there are other reports to suggest otherwise, he said.
The 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell questioned Sutton about the 2 April case on Wednesday morning, saying he had been told the employee was working at the factory the whole time.
Sutton said he hadnt heard this and called it a rumour.
Sutton said this is what the worker had told health officials, and he was unsure if this was double-checked with Cedar.
A spokeswoman for Cedar told Guardian Australia the business first learned that a worker was diagnosed on 2 April on a phone call at 8pm Tuesday night.
She said the company is unaware of who this worker is.
Our 350 workers arent all just full time on the payroll, its much more complicated than that. So for health workers, its not like the contact tracing would just be simple, she said.
It would be dangerous for me to speculate on who that is, but there are a lot of people in and out.
Sutton said he did not believe this worker was the cause of the current cluster.
The federal agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said he wants an investigation into when Victorian officials alerted the Department of Agriculture of the outbreak.
I have some concern in which I am investigating because there were commonwealth departmental people going through those abattoirs doing inspections, and I am just getting to the bottom of when we were notified because obviously they make an inspection in one abattoir and move to another, Littleproud said at a press conference on Wednesday.
I want to understand when we were notified and how we were notified because potentially those commonwealth Department of Agriculture people who were in the abattoir potentially could have spread the virus.
However, he said no Department of Agriculture workers who visited the abattoir had been diagnosed with Covid-19.
A worker from Cedar Meats has told Guardian Australia how the first days of the outbreak unfolded.
On Thursday [30 April] they said the health department was sending three teams out to work.
Then Friday morning they told us the health department wasnt coming out for some reason, they didnt tell us They had given all our details to three different testing locations, one in Sunshine hospital, one in Footscray, one in Laverton. So we were to go there directly from work to be tested.
Kairouz said on-site testing wasnt possible and in the interests of time it was more efficient for staff to access nearby testing facilities.
The worker said the site had been taking the pandemic seriously prior to the outbreak.
They had someone spraying down surfaces They had a person taking your temperature before we were entering the gates, and you got sent home if you were too high.
Cedar Meats confirmed they had hired a security guard to test temperatures and a small number of workers were sent home.
He also said workers from the boning rooms, where the infection appears to have begun, and the kill floor, were separated and no longer ate lunch together.
One of the 49 cases associated with the abattoir is a healthcare worker who was in contact with the Cedar workers who underwent surgery at Sunshine hospital. Another 23 workers remain in isolation.
Some 42 of the cases have been confirmed as workers at Cedar Meats, three are close contacts. The department has not provided details on the four most recent cases.