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NWR Sturgeon Refinery Project in Edmonton, Alberta on Feb. 9, 2016. The facility is on the outbreak list.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Alberta’s oil-sands operations are struggling to contain COVID-19, with seven sites in the Fort McMurray region on the provincial outbreak list and some companies taking contact tracing among infected workers into their own hands.

Hundreds of cases are currently linked to the sites in the northern health zone, where this week around 13 per cent of people tested were found to be infected with the virus. The Sturgeon Refinery and Heartland Petrochemical Complex near Edmonton are also on the outbreak list.

As companies wrestle to keep the contagion off site, energy companies are pivoting their internal occupational health teams to contact tracing.

At Heartland Petrochemical, for example, operator Inter Pipeline Ltd. has contact tracers to examine all on-site locations where a worker diagnosed with COVID-19 has been, and find out who they were in contact with. Tracers then identify, notify and send home those secondary contacts and arrange a virus test for them.

Imperial Oil Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. also have internal teams that perform contact tracing when a worker tests positive.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) has gone a step further, looking externally to hire employees for its contact-tracing team. In a recent job posting, the company was searching for people to “build rapport and provide reassurance with diplomacy and tact to individuals dealing with health concerns, while also providing responses to COVID-19 general inquiries raised by employees, contractors and leaders.”

In an e-mail, CNRL told The Globe and Mail that the team’s work complements contact-tracing efforts by Alberta Health Services (AHS).

But the AHS contact-tracing system is itself struggling.

Last month, Alberta suspended the system for all but a few high-priority groups, such as health workers, people living in long-term care homes, and students and staff in schools. The government is hiring more contact tracers, but last week Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said the system had such an extensive backlog that they were abandoning cases older than 10 days.

That problem still hasn’t been solved, she said Thursday, but AHS is working on it.

And while Dr. Hinshaw said it’s not ideal that private companies are having to contact trace inside their own organizations, she thanked those that have.

“In this time period where we are working to increase our capacity, it is absolutely essential that we all work together and I’m really grateful to those that are stepping up to do that work in the short term,” she said.

The collapse of contact tracing means the province has almost no idea where most people are getting sick. Even before the system began sputtering early this month, nearly half of all infections had no known source. Now, that number is 82 per cent.

Community spread is the suspected cause of the vast majority of cases at Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s Mildred Lake operation, spokesperson Will Gibson told The Globe. On the outbreak list, AHS says 77 cases are linked to the site.

Oil companies have added a slew of cleaning, screening and other health measures since the pandemic began. For example, Syncrude lobbied the Fort McMurray city council to introduce a mandatory mask mandate, while Imperial has implemented autonomous temperature screening for workers via cameras.

None of that has stopped the virus infiltrating oil projects.

According to AHS data, the seven oil-sands operations on the outbreak list – coupled with Heartland and Sturgeon – make up 234 cases.

That includes 51 at Suncor’s Base Plant operation, and 25 at a remote drilling rig connected to the company’s Firebag operation. CNRL’s Albian and Horizon sites have 50 cases between them, while Heartland has seven and Sturgeon has eight.

Five cases are linked to Imperial’s Cold Lake operations, and 11 are connected to its Kearl Lake work camp in Fort McKay, which serves a nearby oil-sands project.

Kearl Lake made news in May after more than 100 COVID-19 cases across four provinces were linked to the camp. That included an outbreak in a remote Dene village in Northern Saskatchewan, where more than 130 of the community’s 2,800 people ended up infected and two died.

Unless Alberta’s provincial pandemic numbers start to drop, Imperial expects more cases at the Kearl Lake camp, the company told employees in a recent notice.

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