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Health officials monitor COVID-19 outbreak at Kearl Lake oilsands facility

Alberta public health officials are closely watching an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Kearl Lake oilsands facility north of Fort McMurray after three workers tested positive for the illness.

Alberta reports 126 new cases of COVID-19, announces $53M for mental health

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in this file photo. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Alberta public health officials are closely watching an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Kearl Lake oilsands facility north of Fort McMurray after three workers tested positive for the illness.

Six more people at the Kearl work camp have been tested and are in isolation while waiting for results, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday at a news conference.

"Alberta Health Services continues to work closely with the company to implement outbreak procedures at the site and to minimize any risk of transmission," Hinshaw said.

"These procedures include appropriate cleaning and infection prevention, as well as continued emphasis on following my guidelines for managers and operators of industrial work camps.

"I thank the employees, managers, camp operators and employers for their continued diligence to keep these camps functional and contributing to Alberta's economy positively during a very challenging time."

'My paramount concern'

The Kearl Lake facility, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, is jointly owned by Imperial and ExxonMobil Canada.

Hinshaw acknowledged that it isn't possible to operate oilsands projects without bringing in workers from other parts of Canada.

Responding to a reporter's question, Premier Jason Kenney said shutting down work camps would not be easy.

"It is very clear to the government that the operation of those plants is an essential service," Kenney said. "But at the same time, that every possible protocol must be taken to ensure their safe operation.

"Simply shutting down those camps … sounds a lot easier than it actually is," Kenney said.

In situ SAGD [steam-assisted gravity drainage] projects, the premier said, need at least a basic crew to operate. Without that basic crew the companies would have to shut the plants down, which in some cases could cause permanent damage to the reservoir and jeopardize billions of dollars of assets.

"So this is not something that we can take lightly, the enormous economic long-term risk of simply, by fiat ... shutting down SAGD projects in particular could be devastating to the province for years to come," Kenney said. "And so our preference instead is to mitigate risk on the public health side with the measures that we are taking."

Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said he's worried about the Kearl Lake outbreak.

"The health and well-being of those who live and work in our region remains my paramount concern," Scott said in a statement. "I believe that public awareness of cases in our region will help us respond appropriately.

"We have been advocating for more transparent and detailed information regarding cases in our region — the disclosure of these cases is a step in the right direction."

Scott Davis, the municipality's director of emergency management, said the region can expect to see an increase of cases over the coming weeks.

"I understand that the news of an outbreak of COVID-19 at Kearl Lake is troubling to hear," Davis said in a statement. "But I want to assure you that we are well positioned as a region to deal with these cases."

In a statement, Imperial Oil said one employee currently at Kearl Lake has tested positive for COVID-19, though other workers have tested positive after leaving the camp. 

"The employee reported symptoms last week and was immediately isolated at the camp, in accordance with Alberta Health Services (AHS) guidelines," the statement said. 

"Over the past several weeks, as we have been actively taking precautions and monitoring our workforce, a very small number [of] employees have tested positive during days away from site and have isolated themselves."

The statement said additional testing is underway and Imperial Oil has had pandemic-related measures in place since mid-March.

"Our focus remains on ensuring the safety and health of our entire workforce, their families and their communities. We are committed to taking all measures to prevent further spread within our workforce."

126 new cases in Alberta

Alberta reported 126 new cases from COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 44 people in hospital being treated for the illness.

That brings the total number of cases in the province to 1,996. No deaths were reported in the last 24 hours.

Hinshaw said the province conducted 2,853 tests over the past 24 hours.

Kenney announced Wednesday the province will invest an extra $53 million to help deal with mental health problems and addictions related to the pandemic.

"Our message today is that help is available," Kenney said at a news conference in Edmonton. "Alberta's government understands the mental health impact of the crisis, that the impact is real, and that it must be met head-on." 

The additional funding will improve access to mental health and addiction recovery services, supports and other resources, the province said in a news release.

Helplines get funding

Of that total, $21.4 million will go toward improving access to phone and online supports with existing helplines, including the Addiction Helpline, the Mental Health Helpline, the Kids Help Phone and the Community and Social Services Helpline (Alberta 211), the news release said.

The new funding also includes:

  • $2.6 million to expand individual and group treatment to address family violence, addiction and mental health for Albertans
  • $4.2 million to expand the addiction and mental health support available through Primary Care Networks
  • $25 million for a new community grant program to enhance community mental health and addiction recovery for the public, including Indigenous communities, seniors, families and people experiencing social barriers, who are negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"​If you're feeling anxious, depressed,​ scared or lonely; if you feel you can't cope or take the pressure any longer; if you're turning too often to alcohol or drugs; please know this: Help is available," Kenney said.

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