UPDATE: Syncrude held vaccine clinics over the May 8-9 weekend for workers and contractors at Mildred Lake and Aurora. Suncor is holding two vaccination clinics at Base Plant operations May 10-13 for all workers, including those from outside the province.
The Oil Sands Community Alliance has started rolling out on-site COVID-19 vaccine clinics at industrial camps and sites in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Oil camp COVID-19 vaccination
The industry group had been working with Alberta Health Services on a rollout plan which was accelerated when the region’s case rates started to spike.
“The first ones have already taken place,” OSCA executive director Perry Berkenpas told Global News on Thursday.
“CNRL Horizon had a clinic this last weekend and coming up, you’ll see that walked across a number of other sites as long as there’s supply available.”
A CNRL spokesperson said the company worked with AHS for a “site-specific clinic” from May 2-4, during which “more than 1,600 employees and contractors voluntarily took the opportunity to be vaccinated.”
That doesn’t include workers who are booking vaccinations at other clinics or through pharmacies.
AHS, in partnership with industry, has started to offer onsite immunization clinics at camps and sites in the RMWB to anyone 18 years or older. Bookings are managed by each site and company, the province said.
Workers can also access the other vaccine options off-site province-wide. Anyone 18 and older in the RMWB can book an appointment immediately through AHS or 811.
In a statement, Suncor said it’s determining the best way to distribute the additional vaccines to workers and the broader community.
“Plans for Suncor-specific vaccination clinics have not yet been finalized.
“Suncor will not be making vaccinations mandatory for our workforce, although in Alberta, rapid antigen screening will be mandatory for site access to our Firebag, Fort Hills and MacKay River sites, for all contractors supporting planned maintenance events in the region, at our Edmonton refinery, as well as for any fly in/fly out Suncor workers.”
The Fort McMurray region has one of the highest rates of active COVID-19 cases per capita in all of North America.
“There’s no question that the variants have changed things for us,” Berkenpas said. “Up until the last few weeks, we have seen that the case rate total for oil sands workers has been lower than, on average, from the Alberta community or even the North Health Region, but it’s certainly changed recently.”
He said about 64 per cent of the active cases connected to oil sands sites involve variants of concern.
CNRL COVID-19 deaths
On Thursday, Canadian Natural confirmed two contractors, employed by service providers conducting maintenance activities at Horizon, died of “complications from COVID-19,” a spokesperson told Global News.
“Canadian Natural extends our deepest sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of these individuals.”
According to Alberta Health, the CNRL Horizon site has had a total of 1,093 COVID-19 cases — 482 are currently active, 609 are listed as recovered and two deaths were reported.
Public health restrictions
The RMWB declared a local state of emergency and Premier Jason Kenney recently announced an expedited vaccine rollout to the area, as well as another hard-hit area: Banff.
On Tuesday evening, the premier announced new public health restrictions, some targeting areas with particularly high COVID-19 cases (more than 50 cases per 100,000 people and with 30 or more active cases).
The new rules closed patios, moved all school grades online and, effective May 5, any workplace with transmission of three or more cases will be required by health officials to close for 10 days. However, work camps and essential and critical services are exempt.
“While they’re essential, not everyone is critical,” Berkenpas said. “So up to 60 per cent of the folks that are normally working from those sites have not been working from those various projects.”
Oil sands companies have been complying with public health measures since the start of the pandemic, Berkenpas said, and have increased safety measures, including reducing the number of people on shift, making schedules for the lunch room, closing gym facilities and common areas, reducing the number of people on transport like buses and planes and increasing rapid testing.
“Some locations have had up to daily tests for folks,” he said.
‘This is a work place hazard’: AFL
But labour unions say it’s not enough and the outbreaks are creating an unsafe work environment.
“Some people were actually leaving before the end of their shifts because they were fearful of the virus,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“When I see these numbers, they are eye opening and they are shocking. It’s a red flag.
“It’s not limited to that one particular site. There are more than a dozen oil sands related construction sites that have more than 100 active cases.”
McGowan says he doesn’t point the finger at oil companies, who, for the most part, are following and enforcing the public health measures. He thinks the province needs to bring in stronger safety guards for sites like these.
“The problem was that the provincial government had set the standards too low,” he said.
“When we think of these oil sands work camps, they’re basically hotels in the middle of nowhere and near these oil sands development sites. People are living in very close quarters and it’s not a surprise that, given the aerosol nature of COVID-19 spread, that these have become hot beds for transmission.
“We’ve been saying the public health guidance has not been keeping up with the science for a very long time. What we need is better masking rules that are actually enforced, we need rules on proper ventilation,” McGowan said.
Alberta’s oil sands continue to fly in workers from across Canada.
There are currently outbreaks at more than a dozen oil and gas work sites and hundreds of workers infected, according to Alberta Health’s numbers.
“The situation is out of control,” McGowan said.
“We’re happy for the work but it has to be in a safe work environment.
“COVID, especially these new variants, is being spread very aggressively in workplaces, especially in oil sands work places,” he added.
“This is a workplace hazard. It needs to be mitigated. If it can’t be mitigated, the work places have to get shut down until the transmission gets close to zero.”
Alberta Health said it issued guidance on industrial work camps “that implemented proven processes and best practices to help protect the health of all involved” and is not aware “of any widespread cases of this guidance not being followed.”
Can we vaccinate ourselves out of this?
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Craig Jenne says in order for vaccinations to help oil camps get out of outbreak crises, two things must happen.
“One is ensuring that everybody gets the shot. We have to remember that even in these camp environments, it’s still a voluntary procedure. So we do not force treatment on anybody. We need to make sure we have high enough vaccine uptake.
“The other critical piece to remember is protection is not instantaneous.
“So, if we’re seeing mass vaccine campaigns, for example, this week, it’s going to be at least another two weeks before we see that optimal immunity and the ability to slow the viral spread.
“So (between) now and then, we can expect the virus to continue to spread through these populations.”
Jenne, an associate professor in the department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary, said other precautions — like masks and physical distancing — are hard to maintain in settings like work camps.
“People are living together, flying in, eating in communal dining halls… These are all activities that drive viral spread.”
But, he said, another factor is just how much virus is circulating in the broader Alberta community.
“With the amount of virus… it’s not at all surprising it’s spreading in these work environments,” Jenne said.
“It’s partly the variants — they definitely can spread more easily and lead to larger outbreaks — but it’s also simply the fact that we’re dealing with more virus in the province than we ever have before so it becomes increasingly (hard) — if not impossible — to keep virus out of the camps.”
Alberta's COVID-19 outbreak list -- North zone
· Cenovus Sunrise Lodge, Fort Mckay: 14 cases (4 active, 10 recovered)
· Civeo Lynx Lodge, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 77 cases (18 active, 59 recovered)
· CNOOC Long Lake, Anzac: 17 cases (7 active, 10 recovered)
· CNRL Albian, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 223 cases (35 active, 188 recovered)
· CNRL Horizon, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 1,093 cases (482 active, 609 recovered, 2 deaths)
· CNRL Jackfish, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 26 cases (2 active, 24 recovered)
· Kearl Lake work site, Fort Mckay: 101 cases (32 active, 69 recovered)
· Oilsands Industrial Lodge, Fort Mackay: 11 cases (2 active, 9 recovered)
· Suncor base plant, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 639 cases (148 active, 490 recovered, 1 death)
· Suncor Firebag, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 21 cases (8 active, 13 recovered)
· Suncor Fort Hills, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 40 cases (9 active, 31 recovered)
· Suncor Mackay River, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 15 cases (2 active, 13 recovered)
· Syncrude Aurora, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 70 cases (36 active, 34 recovered)
· Syncrude Mildred Lake site, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: 854 cases (369 active, 485 recovered)