COVID-19 hits large-scale training exercise at CFB Wainwright

Soldiers participating in large-scale exercises at CFB Wainwright say Canadian Armed Forces members who have tested positive for COVID-19 are isolating in small, unheated tents with limited ability to clean themselves.

Spokesperson confirms 'small number' of COVID-19 cases among soldiers

Up to 2,500 soldiers are participating in Maple Resolve, a large scale exercise being held on a training range near CFB Wainwright in eastern Alberta. (Canadian Armed Forces)

Soldiers participating in large-scale exercises at CFB Wainwright say Canadian Armed Forces members who have tested positive for COVID-19 are isolating in small, unheated tents with limited ability to wash themselves.

Up to 2,500 soldiers, mostly from Edmonton, are participating in Maple Resolve and Agile Ram in a training area at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in eastern Alberta. The exercises are expected to wrap up in June.

Two soldiers who spoke to CBC in late April said members of their unit have tested positive for COVID-19 and are spending isolation in small tents. 

They said some tents are unheated, and sick soldiers haven't been able to properly wash themselves. 

They said they were concerned that the isolating soldiers were being checked on infrequently.

CBC has agreed to grant to the soldiers confidentiality.

A spokesperson for the armed forces confirmed that a "small number" of exercise participants have tested positive for COVID-19.

Capt. Derek Reid said exact case numbers can't be disclosed because of a policy to not reveal specifics about particular groups.

The armed forces does report the number of active cases across its entire population. As of Wednesday there were 41 active cases — down from 61 the previous week. There have been 1,647 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic. 

'Austere conditions'

Reid said isolating soldiers are checked on daily by medical staff, and could be moved to a medical isolation facility if necessary.

Soldiers who test positive isolate for 10 days or until their symptoms are gone — whichever is longer, Reid said. 

Reid said learning to survive and thrive in "austere conditions" is a fundamental part of military field training. He said he has confirmed isolating personnel have regular access to shower facilities, but that heating is only available for tents large enough to fit a stove.

"However, our soldiers are well equipped and accustomed to dealing with cold conditions (and temperatures lower than those seen recently in Wainwright)," he said in an email. 

He said close contacts of positive cases are placed in quarantine for 14 days, but in some cases are retested at 10 days to allow for a "restricted return" to training.

Cohorts and testing

In an interview last month, Col. Wade Rutland, commander of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade, outlined plans for testing on arrival and cohorting until results came back. 

But the soldiers who spoke to CBC said cohorting didn't really happen in practice.

"The safety concerns this brigade has regarding [covid] are purely optics for the outside world, because every single opportunity where they want to accomplish something that negates a rule they just change the rule," one of them said.

In his emailed statement, Reid said the medical policy is to maintain cohorts until test results are received, "except for extremely limited situations which required cohorts to interact for operational reasons."

He said the maximum size of a cohort is about 30 people, but the goal is to keep them as small as possible.

Rutland told CBC last month that four soldiers would sleep in each 10-person tent. The soldiers CBC spoke with said they are sleeping with at least 7 people in 10-person tents.

Reid confirmed the number Rutland gave. He said it's up to the chain of command to enforce the policy and they have had no internal reports of problems. 

Soldiers offered vaccine

Reid said the armed forces ran a vaccine clinic for Maple Resolve participants from April 26-29 and more than 1,700 doses were administered, which is about 90 per cent uptake. He said 150 members chose not to get the vaccine.

He said getting a vaccine is strongly encouraged but voluntary for CAF members, but failure to be immunized can affect a member's ability to do their job or participate in operations.


Paige Parsons is an award-winning Edmonton-based reporter. She can be reached at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.