Third wave of COVID-19 hits Alberta's oilpatch as Wood Buffalo declares pandemic emergency

Oilsands companies in northeastern Alberta are struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19 within their highly transient workforces.

As of Monday, operators were contending with 12 outbreaks, 738 active cases

Alberta Health says there are 12 active outbreaks at work camps and mining sites across the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta oilsands companies are struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19 among their transient workforces.

As of Monday, Alberta Health reported 12 active outbreaks at work camps and mining sites across the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

A total of 2,054 workers had tested positive, with 738 active cases linked to the latest outbreaks.

The regional municipality declared a state of local emergency on Monday because of climbing COVID-19 cases.

Much has changed in the span of five months.

On Nov. 19, 258 cases had been linked to the oilsands. At the time, there were six active outbreaks and 10 active cases.

The illness has now been linked to the death of a second worker. 

A Garda World security guard working at the Suncor base plant recently died of COVID-19, the company confirmed in a statement to CBC News on Tuesday. 

The plant, 25 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, is contending with one of the largest outbreaks, with a total of 510 cases, including 145 active.

In September, an Acden employee at Imperial Oil's Kearl Lake site died of the disease. 

The Canadian Natural Resources Limited Horizon site, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, is home to the largest active outbreak, with a total of 632 cases, including 300 that are active.

Operators have tried to curb the spread on site, introducing stringent screening protocols and cutting down on movement within the camps.

Workers have been screened daily, subjected to rapid antigen testing and, when needed, to strict isolation protocols. 

Hundreds of contractors have been confined in camps, isolated in rooms now operating as designated isolation units, their meals delivered with knocks at closed doors.

Each case is traced. Masks and physical distancing have become part of standard safety protocols.

The Oilsands Community Alliance  — which represents 15 operators in the region — said in a statement Monday that operators are striving to keep workers safe. 

"Since the start of the pandemic, oilsands operators have had strict protocols in place and sites are limited to critical and essential staff only. With the variant cases rising all over Alberta, additional measures have been implemented." 

Camp transmission, vaccine resistance 

Fort McMurray, the largest population centre in the municipality, currently has 1,064 active cases, the highest per capita rate in the province. 

School classrooms have shuttered and the municipality's sole hospital has reached its ICU capacity.

The overlap between the community caseload and the oilsands outbreaks is unclear due to the way cases are tracked by Alberta Health. Case totals for each community account only for residents, not transient oilsands workers who travel into the region. 

Premier Jason Kenney said during a news conference Monday that oilsands work camps are a hotspot for infection. 

"A lot of that [transmission] appears to have occurred at work camps where people were socialising after hours and not wearing masks, not taking those basic precautions," Kenney said.

The premier said the uptake on vaccines in the municipality has been about half of the 25 per cent average seen elsewhere in Alberta.

Mayor Don Scott said too many residents, particularly young oilsands workers, have been left unprotected. He is calling on the province to lower the vaccine eligibility age for his constituents and provide more details on community spread. 

Kenney has said he will not alter the age guidelines but will ensure eligible residents, including shift workers, are afforded more convenient access to vaccines. 

The premier and Health Minister Tyler Shandro are expected to meet with Scott and municipal officials on Tuesday. 

"The supply is there," Kenney said. "Maybe the clinics and pharmacies have not been convenient enough for folks. Maybe there continues to be an issue of vaccine hesitancy in some of the surrounding First Nations. Those are issues that we have to work through."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.