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Mining operations at the Kearl Oil Sands project near Fort McMurray, on Tuesday, June 13, 2017. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday that Alberta Health Services has implemented outbreak procedures at the Kearl site to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

Alberta health officials are working with a remote Northern Alberta oil sands camp after a COVID-19 outbreak left three workers with the disease and six more in isolation as they await test results.

The Kearl Lake camp, operated by U.S-based Civeo Corp., serves Imperial Oil Ltd.'s oil sands project, about 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. For months, companies associated with oil sands camps and lodges have ratcheted up efforts to keep the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 away from the crowded living quarters.

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday that Alberta Health Services has implemented outbreak procedures at the Kearl site to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

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Thousands of people who work in the oil sands live in camps and lodges in Northern Alberta, rotating in and out on private flights. Workers share bedrooms, washrooms and elbow space in lunchrooms. The camps, as a result, are potential hot spots for the virus.

Imperial confirmed in an e-mail one of the people with COVID-19 was an oil sands employee.

They’re not the first.

The company said a small number of other Imperial workers have tested positive for the contagion over the past several weeks while off-site. It said anyone who may have been in contact with infected workers has been informed and asked to self-isolate at home.

Imperial has had a dedicated COVID-19 team for Kearl in place since mid-March. It said measures to curb the virus on-site include enhanced cleaning and sterilization, employee health monitoring, and isolation and treatment of sick individuals.

It said registered health professionals have also been conducting temperature screening at flight centres and on work buses for all on-site personnel.

The oil sands have been declared an essential service in Alberta, and Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday there are no plans to change that despite historically low crude prices and a dramatic drop in global demand caused by the contagion.

Kavi Bal, press secretary to Energy Minister Sonya Savage, told The Globe and Mail that two wings of the Kearl camp have been segregated for virus control – one for self-isolation if a person has symptoms, the other to quarantine workers with confirmed cases.

Camp workers with symptoms will also be barred from flights. They will only be allowed to leave if they can get home without any risk of spreading infection, Mr. Bal said, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Hinshaw said the consequences of shutting down the sites would be “significant” in an economic and practical sense, “so we’re doing our best to make sure they have all the information that they need and the guidance they need to operate in the safest way possible.”

That work by AHS includes site risk assessments, ensuring testing is available and protocols for enhanced cleaning. Imperial has also brought in thermal imaging cameras to scan workers coming into camps or going to worksites.

Shutting down the oil sands “sounds a lot easier than it actually is,” Mr. Kenney said, and could have “devastating” long-term economic effects on Alberta.

“In some cases, it can cause permanent damage to the reservoirs and, with that, lose or jeopardize billions of dollars of assets, which are absolutely essential to the operation of the provincial economy,” he said. “Our preference instead is to mitigate public health risks with the measures we are taking.”

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