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North zone sees lower vaccination rates as Fort McMurray experiences spike in COVID-19 cases

Click to play video: 'Wood Buffalo mayor meets with health officials seeking additional support' Wood Buffalo mayor meets with health officials seeking additional support
Fort McMurray has the highest number of active COVID-19 cases in Alberta and a state of local emergency in effect. As Morgan Black reports, officials within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo want the province to do more to help – Apr 27, 2021

On Sunday, councillors in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo passed a motion to declare a state of local emergency in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Councillors also passed a motion Sunday to make a request to the provincial and federal governments for an accelerated vaccine distribution for the Fort McMurray area. Council is expected to debate additional measures at a meeting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

The region includes both the city of Fort McMurray, as well as numerous oilsands operations with camps that house thousands of workers. There are COVID-19 outbreaks at many of those facilities (scroll down for the numbers).

Read more: State of local emergency declared in Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo amid high COVID-19 cases

According to the most recent COVID-19 data released Monday, the RMWB has an active case rate of 1,300.9 per 100,000 — the highest in all of Alberta. In comparison, Edmonton and Calgary’s case rate per 100,000 people ranges from the 300 to 700s, depending on the area of the city.

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Alberta Health said the Fort McMurray region had 1,086 active cases for a population of 83,478.

Click to play video: 'Several large COVID-19 outbreaks at northern Alberta oilsands camps' Several large COVID-19 outbreaks at northern Alberta oilsands camps
Several large COVID-19 outbreaks at northern Alberta oilsands camps – Apr 26, 2021

On Monday, the province released more vaccine data, including regional breakdowns.

The data shows in the North zone, 18.8 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine and 4.6 per cent are fully immunized.

Compare that to the Edmonton zone, where 28.3 per cent have received at least one dose of vaccine and 6.7 per cent are fully immunized, according to Alberta Health’s data.

In the Central zone, 24.8 per cent have received at least one dose. In the Calgary zone, it’s 25.2 per cent and in the South zone, 27 per cent have received at least one shot.

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Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray residents struggle with high COVID-19 case numbers' Fort McMurray residents struggle with high COVID-19 case numbers
Fort McMurray residents struggle with high COVID-19 case numbers – Apr 26, 2021

On Monday afternoon, the RMWB said walk-in vaccination appointments were still available in Fort McMurray for the AstraZeneca vaccine for those born in 1981 or before.

The region directed eligible Albertans to the clinic at MacDonald Island between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Alberta Health Services said all other walk-in clinics — other than those in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray — were closed due to supply.

Read more: Canada’s oil sands need workers, but face complications due to COVID-19 surge

On Tuesday, Suncor confirmed one of its contractors died from COVID-19. The company said it was a Garda contractor who worked at the Base Plant operations.

“Our thoughts are with their family, friends and co-workers during this time,” Suncor spokesperson Paul Newmarch told Global News. “Our focus is on our people and supporting the needs of those who knew and worked with our colleague.”

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In Alberta Health’s daily update, the province said a woman in her 50s linked to the outbreak at Suncor Base Plant died from COVID-19 on April 25. The case included comorbidities.

Click to play video: 'Province is reaching out to Municipality of Wood Buffalo and First Nations amid COVID-19 state of emergency: Kenney' Province is reaching out to Municipality of Wood Buffalo and First Nations amid COVID-19 state of emergency: Kenney
Province is reaching out to Municipality of Wood Buffalo and First Nations amid COVID-19 state of emergency: Kenney – Apr 26, 2021

On Tuesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she was on a call with the RMWB, along with the health minister and other officials.
She said they discussed the state of local emergency and ways the province can help the region.

Mayor Don Scott said the hours of the MacDonald Island walk-in vaccine clinic (9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) are an issue, especially for shift workers. Scott said he suggested on-site vaccinations at work camps or some kind of mobile vaccination program.

He said they also talked about rapid testing at the Fort McMurray airport.

Scott said the RMWB’s average age is 32.7, which means most residents aren’t eligible yet for the vaccine. The region wants to see younger people there become eligible for COVID-19 vaccine.

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“We want more than attention,” Scott said during a council meeting on Tuesday. “We want action.”

Public and Catholic schools in the area have moved all students kindergarten to Grade 6 online until May 10. Hinshaw said youth extracurricular activities for that younger K-6 age group, including youth sports, recreation and performance, cannot be done indoors and must be cancelled or done outdoors.

Read more: Alberta adds more contact tracers, can now trace every COVID-19 case

She said Alberta Health Services is trying to find ways to reduce testing wait times and speed up contact tracing.

Hinshaw announced a change to Alberta’s close-contact testing approach. Now, anyone identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case will not require two tests if they remain asymptomatic for their 14-day isolation. Close contacts will only require one COVID-19 test as long as they don’t develop symptoms.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health reiterated that there are still doses of AstraZeneca available to anyone 40 and older in the RMWB at the walk-in clinic. Hinshaw said it’s her understanding that current supply of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines “is spoken for in the next short while,” but Alberta is making sure portions of the incoming shipments in the coming weeks will go to Fort McMurray.

Still, she said this region isn’t the only area with high rates of COVID-19.

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Click to play video: 'Hinshaw announces updated COVID-19 measures to help Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo' Hinshaw announces updated COVID-19 measures to help Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
Hinshaw announces updated COVID-19 measures to help Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – Apr 27, 2021

Premier Jason Kenney said Monday a lot of the transmission in the region has “occurred at work camps where people were socializing after hours and not wearing masks, not taking those basic precautions.”

“I think it’s totally understandable that people who work long hours and don’t have opportunities to socialize with family in those camps or staff quarters will sometimes get together and perhaps just kind of forget momentarily about the rules in place.”

Kenney said he shares the municipal government’s concerns about the region’s high numbers. He said the idea of shipping more vaccine to the area is “one possibility” but also added the province has provided a lot of support for the region, including providing rapid test kits to oilsands work camps.

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“We are prepared to provide additional supply to the extent that we can. Obviously, our overall supply is constrained which is a problem everywhere,” Kenney said.

“I would point out that there’s, every day, been a significant amount of unused supply that’s already been made available to folks in that region.”

Kenney said the province and AHS are working with the local government to ensure people are able to access vaccine, including at work camps. He said the groups will also work together on issues of vaccine hesitancy, if that’s the case.

Click to play video: 'State of local emergency to be declared in Fort McMurray area amid high COVID-19 cases' State of local emergency to be declared in Fort McMurray area amid high COVID-19 cases
State of local emergency to be declared in Fort McMurray area amid high COVID-19 cases – Apr 26, 2021

The 11 First Nations and Métis Nations of the RMWB are calling upon the province of Alberta to immediately change its approach to COVID-19.

“Whatever Alberta has been doing so far has been a failure,” said Allan Adam, chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

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Kendrick Cardinal, president of the Fort Chipewyan Métis, said COVID-19 outbreaks in the region recently took the life of a respected Métis elder.

Read more: 2nd Indigenous COVID-19 vaccine clinic open in Calgary

“If we look to our Indigenous communities in Wood Buffalo, we have done extensive work to protect our people,” said Ron Quintal, president of the McKay Métis Nation. The group said communities have set up checkpoints and is implementing curfews.

“Our biggest barrier today is the rollout of the vaccines to the greater population and all age groups, while implementing temporary restrictions in the region until we can get our case numbers to a manageable point,” Quintal said.

In a letter, the Indigenous communities of the RMWB have asked that several measures be implemented, including a stay-at-home order, only allowing essential business to open, creating a mass vaccination program for everyone over 18, expanding rapid testing at all points of entry to the community, setting up a field hospital “to deal with the shortage of beds and health-care workers,” moving Northland School Division online and bringing in a community-wide curfew.

“These are all actions that have been implemented in jurisdictions that have fared better than we have, and they are proven effective,” Adam said.

“Our region is losing the battle with COVID-19 and we cannot accept the lack of meaningful action and response any longer.”

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Click to play video: 'Indigenous-led COVID-19 vaccine clinics' Indigenous-led COVID-19 vaccine clinics
Indigenous-led COVID-19 vaccine clinics – Apr 26, 2021

As of April 26, the following sites were included in the province’s COVID-19 outbreak list for the North zone:

  • Cenovus Foster Creek, Cold Lake
  • Cenovus Sunrise Lodge, Fort Mckay
  • Civeo Lynx Lodge, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • CNOOC Long Lake, Anzac
  • CNRL Albian, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • CNRL Horizon, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • CNRL Jackfish, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Kearl Lake work site, Fort Mckay
  • MMA Silin Forest Campus, Fort McMurray
  • Reed Energy Group Inc., Grande Prairie
  • Royal Camp Services, Grande Prairie
  • Suncor base plant, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Suncor Fort Hills, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Suncor Mackay River, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Syncrude Aurora, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Syncrude Mildred Lake site, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Alberta Health provided the following breakdown of outbreaks on Monday

  • CNRL Albian site – 183 cases (21 active, 162 recovered)
  • CNRL Horizon site – 632 cases (300 active, 332 recovered)
  • CNRL Jackfish site – 24 cases (3 active, 21 recovered)
  • Cenovus Sunrise Lodge – 10 cases (1 active, 9 recovered)
  • Civeo Lynx Lodge – 62 cases (30 active, 32 recovered)
  • CNOOC Long Lake site – 10 cases (2 active, 8 recovered)
  • Imperial Oil Kearl Lake site – 71 cases (14 active, 57 recovered)
  • Suncor base plant – 510 cases (145 active, 365 recovered)
  • Suncor Firebag Village – 11 cases (8 active, 3 recovered)
  • Suncor MacKay River site – 13 cases (1 active, 12 recovered)
  • Syncrude Aurora site – 32 cases (18 active, 14 recovered)
  • Syncrude Mildred Lake site – 496 cases (195 active, 301 recovered)

— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News

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