Companies associated with camps and lodges for oil sands workers are ratcheting up efforts to keep the new coronavirus away from the crowded living quarters. Measures range from developing software to flag people who may be at risk before they board flights to remote facilities, to ending self-serve buffets in cafeterias.
Thousands of people who work in the oil sands live in camps and lodges in Northern Alberta, rotating in and out on private flights. Communal living defines the camps. Workers share bedrooms, washrooms and elbow space in lunchrooms.
The camps, as a result, are potential hot-spots for the virus that causes COVID-19. The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic; Canada’s federal Health Minister estimates between 30 per cent and 70 per cent of Canadians could be infected. People living in oil sands camps tend to be physically healthy and the majority are younger than 55 years old. This means that while they live in conditions where the coronavirus could explode, their symptoms will likely be mild.
But that, too, could fuel the spread of the illness because campers may not realize they are contagious, according to Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
“People, if they go home, will potentially have contact with” others who are more vulnerable, such as senior citizens or those with underlying conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. “We have to try to simply mitigate spread."
Gemstone Logistics, which works with oil sands companies and camp operators, is working on software that would flag people who may be at risk of carrying the coronavirus before they board charter flights to remote camps. Ross Purdie, a vice-president at Gemstone, said one of the big oil sands companies asked his company to design the program. It will gather information from screening questions before passengers board their planes and if, for example, a passenger recently travelled to a high-risk country, the program would identify that person as a potential coronavirus threat.
“They can use that to decide not to let somebody board a flight," Mr. Purdie said. “We’re almost ready to release this feature."
Suncor Energy Inc. has increased how frequently it cleans its camps and offices, according to Erin Rees, a spokeswoman for the company. Some of Suncor’s camp cafeterias are now full service, rather than self-serve, which limits the number of people touching surfaces such as serving spoons. Some cafeterias are handing out bagged lunches in lieu of self-serve dining. Employees must also use hand sanitizer before and after spending time in the dining rooms and bag rooms, where campers store items such as dirty boots and jackets, he said.
It increased staff for its health hotline, Ms. Rees said. Employees can use the hotline to report any symptoms and find resources with advice for personal travel plans.
Cenovus Energy Inc. has also jacked up the cleaning standards of its camps and buildings, Reg Curren, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement. It’s also asked the same of the companies that transport its employees by air and bus.
Risks related to transportation have already emerged. On Tuesday, oil sands workers headed to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon project did not get off the plane when they landed in northern Alberta because a member of the airline’s crew received confirmation, after operating the flight, that he or she had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. The plane, operated by Canadian North, returned to Edmonton with the passengers.
“The crew who operated the flight will enact the self-isolation protocols that have been put in place by health authorities,” Dan Valin, a spokesman for Canadian North, said in a statement Wednesday. The crew member, he said, has not been confirmed as a COVID-19 case.
CNRL, in a memo to employees and obtained by The Globe and Mail, said: “In consultation with Alberta Health Services, employees and contractors on this flight have been cleared to return to Horizon site on Wednesday.”