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Alberta's oilsands take steps to keep COVID-19 in check as total cases creep past 1,000

There have been more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 linked to oilsands outbreaks in Alberta since the pandemic began in March, including 120 cases diagnosed in other provinces.

Rapid-testing pilot project, precautionary measures around fly-in, fly-out workers

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oilsands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 found in Alberta's oilsands operations. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

There have been more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 linked to oilsands outbreaks in Alberta since the pandemic began in March, including 120 cases diagnosed in other provinces.

And while industry officials aren't raising an alarm, they are bringing in measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"The ratios [of infection] look to be quite similar to the general population," said Perry Berkenpas, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance, which has been acting as a link between Alberta Health Services and oilsands companies.

According to Alberta Health statistics, accurate to Feb. 3, there were 1,020 cases of COVID-19 reported at 21 oilsands operations. The majority of the outbreaks — 95 per cent — were in the Wood Buffalo region. 

Eleven of the outbreaks are still active, with 38 current cases.

Though 11.6 per cent of the cases were diagnosed outside of the province, Alberta Health could not confirm if those were related to fly-in, fly-out workers. 

In comparison, there had been nine outbreaks at Wood Buffalo oilsands sites as of late November, linked to 258 cases of COVID-19. Those numbers did not include cases from other provinces. 

Berkenpas said oilsands companies have brought in precautions for fly-in, fly-out workers, such as adjusting work schedules to allow people to isolate before going home or minimizing the amount of travel workers are doing. 

The fly-in, fly-out workers are necessary to the industry, said Berkenpas. 

"There's always a very active program from the operators to attract people to live locally in Fort McMurray, but many of those skilled individuals have strong family ties in other places and provinces," he said. 

With almost 126,000 cases in Alberta since March, the oilsands cases represent 0.8 per cent of the provincial total, he said. 

Berkenpas also noted the oilsands workforce represents a large population. A labour market report from April 2019 projected total oilsands employment of 25,800 for 2019.

But the size of onsite workforces have been getting smaller as companies make reductions to limit the spread of COVID-19, he added.

"On average, we're seeing something over 50 per cent reduction in the number of people that are on site," he said. 

Berkenpas said the oilsands companies meet weekly to talk about best practices, offer help and share resources. They've also been sharing protocols and information with other industries that are looking for help. 

New rapid testing

Suncor is part of a consortium of companies involved in a COVID-19 rapid testing project, being run out of the University of Toronto's Creative Destruction Lab. 

Janice Stein, a fellow with the Creative Destructive team, told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active that the project is meant to keep workplaces safer during the course of the pandemic. 

It includes a nasal swab done twice a week but Stein emphasized that it's not the typical "brain tickler" — or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests — being done by provincial labs.

The rapid tests are known to provide more false negatives than PCR tests, but Stein said people should think differently about the risks and benefits.

"If you compare that — more false negatives — to doing nothing, that's the comparison," said Stein. "Because our public health systems across our provinces ... cannot give everybody a PCR test." 

Paul Newmarch, a media relations spokesperson for Suncor, said the rapid-testing pilot is an "additional layer of protection" for workers at three sites: Base Plant in Wood Buffalo, Fort McKay and the Sarnia Refinery in Ontario.

Suncor currently has one outbreak at its Base Plant, where 214 people have been infected. The company has had two previous outbreaks, totalling 51 cases. 

Newmarch said Suncor is trying to get more pilot projects in sites across the country in the coming weeks. 

The company also has protocols in place for any fly-in, fly-out workers who test positive. 

"To our knowledge, the rate of workplace transmission at any of our Suncor work sites is very low," Newmarch said. 

There are 12 companies involved in the rapid-testing pilot project. Berkenpas said the information from the rapid testing will be shared between the oilsands companies, to see if others should participate in the program.

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