COVID-19 outbreaks declared at 6 oilsands sites

Over the course of the pandemic there have been roughly 258 cases of COVID-19 linked to oilsands work sites in Wood Buffalo, according to Alberta Health.

'Most of our employees and contractors are committed to doing the right thing,' says Syncrude spokesperson

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

As COVID-19 cases rise in Alberta, work sites in the province's oilsands are dealing with multiple outbreaks. 

There are currently six active outbreaks at oilsands sites, with 10 active cases tied to those outbreaks.

Over the course of the pandemic there have been roughly 258 cases of COVID-19 linked to oilsands work sites in Wood Buffalo, according to Alberta Health. 

But that number could be higher — Alberta Health said the numbers may be underestimated as they don't include cases from other jurisdictions. 

Alberta Health reported 86 cases linked to the Kearl Lake outbreak in April and May but Alberta Health Services indicated that more than 100 cases originated from that outbreak. 

The six active outbreaks at sites operated by Syncrude, Suncor, CNRL and Imperial: 

  • CNRL Albian – 2 active cases
  • CNRL Horizon – 0 active cases
  • Kearl Lake work site – 0 active cases
  • Suncor base plant  – 1 active case
  • Suncor Firebag – 4 active cases 
  • Syncrude Mildred Lake site – 3 active cases

In total, there have been nine outbreaks at oilsands sites in Wood Buffalo since the start of the pandemic.

Will Gibson, spokesperson for Syncrude, said the company had about 1,000 people working remotely at the beginning of the pandemic. But when AHS declared an outbreak at the beginning of September, the phased re-entry was halted. 

There have been 9 outbreaks at oilsands sites since the beginning of the pandemic. (Alberta Health)

He said the company is encouraging employees to follow AHS's COVID guidelines, including physical distancing. 

Across the company there have been 105 confirmed COVID-19 cases. That includes employees and contractors, not all of them were on a work site while infectious. 

"Our assessment indicates a strong likelihood that most of Syncrude's positive cases were contracted in the community rather than the workplace," Gibson said. 

While Syncrude doesn't operate a fly-in, fly-out camp, it does bus people to work. 

Gibson said the company has reduced how many people are on each bus and has assigned seating. 

Before each shift, employees are asked to do the AHS self-assessment. 

"Most of our employees and contractors are committed to doing the right thing," he said. 

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said the biggest risk factor with oilsands work camps is having people fly in and fly out.

"COVID did not walk in there by itself," said Furness. "It came on a plane." 

He said it's not just the risk of the plane, it's that people are queuing up to get on the plane, sharing a small space in the waiting lounge, and waiting for bags. 

"It's a gigantic amount of contact."

Furness said another concern is workers living in close contact. 

He said two things would help: creating additional living space so people aren't co-habitating, and doing COVID-19 testing when people leave and arrive. 

"Before they get on the plane to fly up there they should test negative," Furness said. 

"When you're talking about an infectious disease that spreads asymptomatically, the concept of personal responsibility… just doesn't work." 

He said the emphasis should be on "collective obligation" rather than "personal responsibility." 

Before anyone gets onto a plane to a CNRL site, they need to undergo a travel history and temperature check, according to CNRL spokesperson Julie Woo. 

Woo wrote in an email that CNRL removed some of the seating in dining halls to ensure physical distancing, and the cleaning and sanitization in dining halls has increased. 

Imperial has also implemented pre-screening and temperature checks for those flying to site. As well, spokesperson Jon Harding wrote in an email that the company also does daily temperature checks for staff before the start of every shift. 

As well, there is an "isolation wing" at the Kearl Lake site. Harding said there are 2,000 people on site, which is a reduction of about one-third of the normal levels.