First on-site oilsands clinic sees more than 1,600 vaccinations

Some Alberta oilsands companies are having vaccination clinics, with the first clinic at CNRL ending with over 1,600 contractors and employees vaccinated.

1,154 active cases of COVID-19 at Wood Buffalo oilsands sites

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Horizon site, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta., includes a surface oilsands mining and bitumen extraction plant, and on-site bitumen upgrading. (CNRL)

As the Wood Buffalo region deals with the highest rate of COVID-19 in the province,  Alberta oilsands companies are hosting vaccination clinics to help protect workers. 

The first on-site clinic ran from May 2 to 4 at the Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) Horizon site and saw more than 1,600 contractors and employees vaccinated. 

CNRL currently has the largest oilsands outbreak with 482 active cases at the Horizon site, 223 active cases at the Albian site and two at the Jackfish site. Two deaths have been linked to the outbreak at Horizon. 

CNRL spokesperson Julie Woo said in an email that the company "implemented significant measures to reduce the risk of exposure or transmission of COVID-19 at our worksites." 

Wood also said the company extends its sympathies to those affected by the outbreaks.

Part of CNRL's COVID-19 response includes using rapid-testing kits and partnering with Alberta Health Services to organize the vaccination clinic. 

As of May 6, there were 1,154 active cases of COVID-19 at Wood Buffalo oilsands sites, with 2,044 recoveries and three deaths. 

Perry Berkenpas, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance, said OSCA and industry have been working with the province for the last month to arrange the immunization clinic. 

Berkenpas said industry conducts annual flu shot campaigns, which have good uptake. He expects that a similar campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine will yield similar results.

"We currently have teams that are working with Alberta Health and each of the various oilsands projects to set up clinics over the next while," said Berkenpas.

"As there are vaccines available, we'll continue to be setting up over the next number of days." 

Berkenpas said companies are sharing information about the vaccines and encouraging employees to participate. 

He's anticipating another clinic will open this weekend.

He said it doesn't matter where the employees are from. Many rotational workers live in other parts of Alberta or Canada but can still get the vaccine. 

Wood Buffalo seeing spike

Berkenpas said the number of cases of COVID-19 on worksites is directly related to the spread of the virus in the Fort McMurray region.

On April 26, there were 2,054 COVID-19 cases associated with 12 outbreaks in Wood Buffalo; 746 cases were active. On May 6, there were 3,201 cases associated with 14 outbreaks in Wood Buffalo; 1,154 were active. 

"With the large spike in cases in the community, it's quickly translated into increased cases within the work operations as well," said Berkenpas. 

As of May 6, there were 55 active cases in the rural Wood Buffalo area, and 1,512 in Fort McMurray. 

Berkenpas said the oilsands workforce tends to be younger, and many people haven't qualified for the vaccine previously.  He said 10,000 vaccines have been allocated for the oilsands clinics. 

"We would hope to exhaust that supply." 

Suncor is working with the province, OSCA, and municipality to see how it can aid with vaccine distribution, according to Paul Newmarch, Suncor media relations. Newmarch said the company is using rapid testing to identify any case. 

Syncrude will host its first vaccination clinic on Saturday, media relations adviser Will Gibson said.

Syncrude is "encouraging our workforce to take advantage of these vaccinations," he said. They will be for people who haven't yet had their first doses.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said more on-site vaccination clinics are expected in coming weeks.