Edmonton

Coronavirus link sends 130 oilsands workers back to Edmonton after 3-hour impasse

A Canadian North flight to an oilsands mine sat on a runway for three hours before returning to Edmonton after it was discovered a crew member on an earlier flight had been in contact with a coronavirus patient.

Plane carrying workers sat on runway while officials grappled with what to do

A Canadian North plane, like this one photographed in 2019, sat on the runway at the CNRL Horizon Oilsands mine for three hours before returning to Edmonton Tuesday after it was discovered somebody on an earlier flight had contact with a person infected by coronavirus. (CambridgeBayWeather/Wikimedia [CC BY-SA 4.0])

A Canadian North flight to an oilsands mine sat for three hours on a remote northern Alberta runway before returning to Edmonton after it was discovered a crew member on an earlier flight had been in contact with a coronavirus patient.

The plane was chartered to fly to CNRL's Horizon oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray, a passenger told CBC News in an exchange of text messages.

The passenger, who feared losing their job for speaking out, was granted anonymity by CBC.  

The plane, carrying 130 employees, flew from Edmonton Tuesday to the Fort MacKay/Horizon Airport where it was grounded on arrival, the passenger said.

The plane remained on the tarmac for almost three hours before a crew member addressed the cabin, the passenger said. 

A video obtained by CBC News shows a Canadian North crew member speaking to passengers. CBC has altered the video to blur the face of the crew member due to privacy concerns. 

A video supplied to CBC shows a Canadian North crew member addressing passengers aboard a flight that landed at Fort McKay, Alta. about a possible coronavirus contamination. CBC has decided not to identify the crew member due to privacy concerns. 2:19

In the video, the crew member apologizes for the wait before saying, "Supposedly, somebody was indirectly in contact with a presumptive coronavirus patient."

The crew member also says he was told the risk to those on board was low, but Alberta Health, CNRL and Canadian North management were discussing what to do. 

"They didn't want me to tell anybody anything and finally I said, 'Someone's got to know something.' So this is me trying to put you at ease," the crew member says on the video "There's no … very low risk."

A passenger, who can't be seen on the video, asks: "Is there someone on here? Or the virus is on the plane?"

The crew member says the infected person is a family member of someone who was on the plane during an earlier flight.

"It's not anybody on board right now."

The crew member also says Alberta Health deemed the risk low. 

"They figure it's so low-risk that when you get back to Edmonton you're free to go."

He says officials are being cautious because CNRL Horizon is a work camp. 

'Cavalier and nonsensical'

Passengers were flown back to Edmonton and told to monitor themselves for symptoms. 

The passenger said the entire event seemed "cavalier and nonsensical" because all of the "potentially-infected workers" were sent to the work site the next day.

The passenger said when the plane returned to Edmonton, "Nobody from Alberta Health met our plane and little information was shared about self-quarantine, etc."

In an email Wednesday, Dan Valin, manager of marketing and communications for Canadian North, said, "Members of our senior executive team were made aware of a possible COVID-19 connected situation."

Officials had been informed that a crew member reported being in close contact with someone who had later tested positive for coronavirus, Valin said. 

"The crew member was made aware of the person's positive test result only after they had operated a flight for one of our Alberta charter clients."

Valin did not specify which client he was referencing. 

Canadian North contacted the public health authority and is following all recommendations, he said. 

The crew member is now in self-isolation. 

Nobody from Alberta Health met our plane and little information was shared about self quarantine.- Canadian North passenger

"The risk level  has been assessed by the public health authority as very low for passengers and crew but we will err with an abundance of caution," Valin said.

 The crew is now in self isolation, he said.

CNRL is continuing operations as normal. 

Tom McMillan, spokesperson for Alberta Health, said the department can't comment on the incident.

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