12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 linked to Kearl Lake oilsands facility

Twelve cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the Kearl Lake oilsands facility north of Fort McMurray, according to Imperial officials.

'We are taking this situation very seriously'

There are 12 confirmed, active cases of COVID-19 linked to the Kearl Lake oilsands facility. (Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC)

Company officials confirmed Thursday there are 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 linked to the Kearl Lake oilsands facility north of Fort McMurray.

There are two active COVID-19 cases on site and 10 workers who tested positive for the virus are off site, according to an emailed statement from Simon Younger, vice-president of production for Imperial, which jointly owns the facility with ExxonMobil Canada. 

"We are taking this situation very seriously," Younger told CBC News. "We have completed contact tracing for all of these individuals and have asked additional members of our workforce to self-isolate while further testing is underway."

The Kearl Lake facility is about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

    Younger said the company is working with the provincial government and Alberta Health Services to "manage this issue."

    Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday that provincial health authorities continue to monitor the outbreak.

    "I would like to stress to Albertans that everything that needs to be done to keep people safe in Kearl and other camps, and food processing facilities like Cargill, is being done," Hinshaw said.

    'Stringent measures' in place: Imperial

    Younger said several measures have been in place since March to protect workers, including a pre-travel screening questionnaire and temperature screening at flight centres in Edmonton and Calgary, and daily temperature readings of workers prior to starting work. 

      The company has also set up an isolation wing onsite.

      "Our team at Kearl is working to ensure Albertans and all Canadians receive the energy resources they need, safely, both during and after this unprecedented time," Younger said. "First and foremost, our focus remains on the health and safety of our workforce, their families and our communities."

        Work camps are similar to cruise ships and nursing homes when it comes to virus containment, said Richard Dixon, , a professor with Athabasca University's faculty of business. Workers travel from across the country to live, work and eat in close quarters.  When an illness hits, it can move quickly through the population. 

        Dixon noted companies have been working hard to institute safe practices, like taking temperatures, increased cleaning and even separating employees with plastic dividers when possible.

        The precautions have been very effective is delaying an outbreak, Dixon said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM,

        "What you've got is people in very tight, controlled areas," Dixon said.

        "It's like cruise ships, military ships, nursing homes, care homes. This is new ground for them." 

        In late March, concerns emerged about a potential coronavirus case at Borealis Lodge, a work camp about 25 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The worker later tested negative for COVID-19. 

        And while the threat of an outbreak is elevated at work camps, shutting them down would have an "unbelievably huge" impact, Dixon said.

        "It's an essential part of our energy transportation," he said.

        "Look at medical supplies, food supplies. Well, they all need vehicles to transport this stuff. You need the oil and the gas, or heating, for energy, for transportation. We're a major supplier in the world so this is really critical."