Why did Canada’s two biggest COVID-19 workplace outbreaks get so big, so fast?

Click to play video: 'Federal exemptions blamed for fueling AB oilsands COVID-19 outbreaks'
Federal exemptions blamed for fueling AB oilsands COVID-19 outbreaks
WATCH: Federal exemptions blamed for fueling AB oilsands COVID-19 outbreaks – May 30, 2021

Eight thousand four hundred oilsands workers have now received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Doses were delivered on-site during a series of clinics organized by the Oil Sands Community Alliance and Alberta Health Services.

“The on-site oil sands vaccination clinics in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo completed earlier this week,” an OSCA spokesperson said in an e-mail to Global News. “We will continue to partner with AHS to determine if there is potential to host additional on-site clinics to administer first and second doses to our workforce.”

The vaccinations appear to be having an impact on more than 20 outbreaks at oilsands work sites or work camps in the region. The number of active cases has fallen to 335 from a high of more than 1,100 just a few weeks ago.

Read more: 4 workers allege unsafe lunchroom conditions at Canada’s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreak

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The variant-fuelled third wave hit Alberta’s oilsands workers hard. The two largest outbreaks led to nearly 3,000 infections.

At Syncrude’s Mildren Lake site, an outbreak was first declared in September 2020 but cases began to surge in March and April 2021. By May 25, the site had a total of 1,329 cases.

An outbreak at Canadian Natural Resource’s Horizon site was first declared in October 2020 but it also saw a surge in cases starting in the spring. By May 25, the site had reported 1,542 cases and three deaths.

One of the people who died was a contractor who worked for the construction company Black & McDonald. On May 19, CEO Bruce McDonald wrote about the worker’s death in a post on the company’s website.

“A gentleman who worked for us in our Western Industrial group died Saturday in a northern Alberta hospital from COVID-19 complications. He had spent nearly one month in the intensive care unit after becoming ill during a shutdown project that B&M was performing at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL)’s Horizon mine and bitumen extraction site in Fort Mackay,” McDonald wrote in the post.

Read more: 'He's fighting for his life' — Alberta father in ICU amid CNRL Horizon COVID-19 outbreak

“He was well-known within our Alberta industrial team. As a friend. A colleague. A mentor. A father. He was a pipefitter by trade. Born and raised in Dryden, Ontario. A general foreman who had worked other shutdowns for us. He was 64, nearing the end of a career on sites such as Horizon.”

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McDonald also wrote about the outbreak at CNRL Horizon.

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus tore through Horizon during the past seven weeks, driven by the variants that have created a precipitous spike in Alberta’s third wave. There have been more than 1100 confirmed COVID-19 infections among site workers since April 1 making Horizon the worst workplace outbreak in sheer magnitude in Canada since the pandemic began.”

McDonald also wrote that two other Black & McDonald employees infected in the outbreak at Horizon were still in hospital.

Read more: Inside the oilsands site that has seen Canada’s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreak

According to both Syncrude and CNRL, strict COVID-19 safety protocols were in place throughout the outbreak. These measures included rapid on-site testing for COVID-19 and strick mask requirements.

Still, both sites proceeded with spring maintenance projects. The maintenance, also known in the industry as a shutdown or turnaround, resulted in a significant increase in on-site labour. CNRL Horizon brought in an additional 5,000 workers during the maintenance period in March and April, while Syncrude Mildred Lake had an additional 2,000 workers on site.

“Obviously, the government of Alberta doesn’t control the maintenance schedule of private companies.  We have been very careful throughout the pandemic to limit the economic impact of public health restrictions,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said during a press conference on May 19.

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“It’s regrettable that we have seen the recent surge. I do believe it probably is connected to travel with workers coming in from out-of-province and out-of-country. As you know, the government of Canada controls international travel quarantine requirements.”

Oilsands workers are considered essential and therefore exempt from the 14-day quarantine required for other travellers entering the country but the exemption was made by both the federal and provincial governments.

“The federal government via Canadian Border Services Agency has the ultimate authority over essential worker exemptions. Under the exemption put in place by the federal government in April 2020, essential workers are not required to quarantine,” said Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan.

“Once the federal exemption was given, which is a necessary prerequisite, a matching provincial sector exemption was granted.”

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

Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson says about 60 out-of-country workers were brought to the Mildred Lake site for the spring turnaround. Most of those workers were required by Syncrude to complete a 14-day quarantine but he says in a “hand full of cases,” exemptions were made.

“One example was for a fully-vaccinated contractor brought up from the United States,” Gibson said.

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Canadian Natural Resources brought out-of-country workers in to help with its spring maintenance project at CNRL Horizon as well but company spokesperson Julie Woo says none of those workers were required to quarantine upon arrival.

“Canadian Natural required approximately 60 highly specialized technical individuals from the U.S. over the 30-day Horizon turnaround. All federal and provincial requirements for sectors designated as essential services were followed, including the requirement for travelers to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test result issued within 72 hours prior to boarding a flight to Canada. Additionally, Canadian Natural used rapid test kits provided by AHS at Horizon as another tool for COVID-19 screening on site.”

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott says he was surprised and concerned to learn out-of-country workers were coming to his community with no required quarantine.

“Any time people are exempt from rules, that’s going to cause a problem and I’m surprised that the government would permit that. It just does not make sense for the people of our region. It doesn’t protect everybody,” he said.

“I’ve always been a big believer that governments have a responsibility to protect people’s health, that’s a primary responsibility, so if they’re providing exemptions and then there’s outbreaks, there is a pretty obvious link between the two.”

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