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Oilsands anti-pandemic measures boosted as COVID-19 outbreaks rise in Fort McMurray region

Click to play video: 'Oil worker infected with COVID-19 angry about workplace conditions' Oil worker infected with COVID-19 angry about workplace conditions
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Alberta has now declared a state of local emergency, as COVID-19 infections surge at oilsands worksites. Heather Yourex-West reports on what that means for the energy sector, and the oil workers at risk – Apr 26, 2021

Alberta oilsands companies are stepping up protective measures as a spate of COVID-19 cases sweeps through the region — at the same time thousands of workers are being brought in for spring shutdown maintenance at various plants.

In Sunday’s update, Alberta reported 3,749 active cases in the North Zone that includes Fort McMurray.

Read more: Alberta reports 1,633 new COVID-19 cases, 2 more deaths on Sunday

“Our focus continues to be on the health and safety of our workforce and communities and are maintaining our strict site protocols to prevent the risk of spread of COVID-19 as we continue to operate,” said Imperial spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt in an email.

The company has six active cases at its Kearl oilsands mine and 35 off-site, with all of the individuals in isolation either in a designated wing at one of its workforce lodges or at home, she said.

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The company started a voluntary vaccination clinic at the site on Monday morning and has implemented a rapid testing program to screen workers before they travel to Kearl, which is just beginning a scheduled maintenance “turnaround,” she added.

Read more: Alberta oil sands group starts offering on-site COVID-19 vaccines as CNRL confirms 2 deaths

As of Monday morning, Suncor had 107 active COVID-19 cases at its Base Plant mine and upgrader, 13 at its Fort Hills mine and nine at MacKay River, which uses steam to recover bitumen through wells, reported spokesman Paul Newmarch.

“To our knowledge, the rate of workplace transmission at any of our Suncor work sites is very low and the majority of cases have been attributed to community transmission,” he said in an email.

Suncor said it has partnered with Alberta Health Services to help vaccinate its workforce in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The company said between Monday and Wednesday, two vaccination clinic sites would be set up at the company’s Base Plant, offering shots for both Suncor workers and contract workers, including those from out of province.

Suncor said AHS had supplied 4,500 doses of the Moderna mRNA vaccine. A final count on the number of people vaccinated Monday wouldn’t be available until later.

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

An oilsands workers who was the first patient to receive a COVID-19 shot at a vaccine clinic inside the Suncor Base Plant, located north of Fort McMurray, Alta., on Monday, May 10, 2021. Supplied by Suncor

Last week, Suncor said it would delay a planned maintenance shutdown at its Base Plant oilsands mine upgrader in view of the outbreaks that led to a state of emergency being declared in the Fort McMurray area.

It said the delay of the turnaround for one of the coker units in the upgrader will allow the company to avoid increasing the number of contractors in the region until similar work at the Syncrude oilsands mine is completed, without affecting production guidance.

As of last week, Syncrude had 369 active cases at its Mildred Lake mine and upgrader and 35 cases at its Aurora mine and extraction facilities, said spokesman Will Gibson.

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He said rapid testing of employees that started in April has identified numerous people with COVID-19 but no symptoms. More than 1,000 employees have been vaccinated.

Canadian Natural is also using rapid testing and recently vaccinated more than 1,600 employees and contractors, said spokeswoman Julie Woo.

“During our recent Horizon (oilsands mine and upgrader) maintenance period, we also used rapid testing of asymptomatic staff to help us quickly identify, contact trace and limit the spread of COVID-19 at our work site,” she said.

“Canadian Natural has completed the planned maintenance activities at Horizon and we have deferred a small scope of activities that are not essential to maintaining the safety of our assets in order to keep the number of personnel on site to minimal required levels.”

MEG Energy declined comment on Monday but CEO Derek Evans said during a conference call last week that the company was able to eliminate the need for a turnaround this year by extending its maintenance work last spring.

“The elimination of a 2021 turnaround has been extremely helpful in managing the number of people at site from a COVID-19 perspective and the health and safety of our employees and contractors,” he said.

Alberta leads Canada in COVID-19 cases and has a seven-day new infection rate twice that as the next highest province, Ontario. It tightened restrictions last week on retail, dining, personal services and gatherings to avoid pushing its health-care system beyond capacity.

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Read more: Alberta’s current COVID-19 status worse than every province and U.S. state

On Monday, Alberta reported 1,597 new infections, bringing the province’s active case count to 25,438.

As of Monday, there were 690 hospitalizations, including158 in intensive care — up from 668 people in hospital and 148 ICU patients on Sunday.

Alberta has now had 2,117 deaths related to COVID-19.

As of Monday, Alberta Health said the following camps were dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks:

  • Cenovus Sunrise Lodge, Fort Mckay
    • 16 cases (Six active, 10 recovered)
  • Civeo Lynx Lodge, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB)
    • 86 cases (14 active, 72 recovered)
  • CNOOC Long Lake, Anzac
    • 18 cases (Seven active, 11 recovered)
  • CNRL Albian, RMWB
    • 248 cases (45 active, 203 recovered)
  • CNRL Horizon, RMWB
    • 1,334 cases (476 active, 856 recovered, two deaths)
  • CNRL Jackfish, RMWB
    • 29 cases (Five active, 24 recovered)
  • Imperial Oil Kearl Lake work site, Fort Mckay
    • 110 cases (25 active, 85 recovered)
  • MEG Energy, Conklin
    • 13 cases (Three active, 10 recovered)
  • North American Construction Group (Ruth Lake), RMWB
    • 10 cases (all recovered)
  • Oilsands Industrial Lodge, Fort Mackay
    • 18 cases (Five active, 13 recovered)
  • Suncor Base Plant, RMWB
    • 709 cases (133 active, 575 recovered, one death)
  • Suncor Firebag, RMWB
    • 27 cases (Seven active, 20 recovered)
  • Suncor Fort Hills, RMWB
    • 49 cases (15 active, 34 recovered)
  • Suncor Mackay River, RMWB
    • 21 cases (Seven active, 14 recovered)
  • Syncrude Aurora, RMWB
    • 93 cases (38 active, 55 recovered)
  • Syncrude Mildred Lake site, RMWB
    • 1,043 cases (347 active, 696 recovered)

— With files from Kaylen Small and Karen Bartko, Global News

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