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A processing unit is shown at Suncor Fort Hills facility in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Sept. 10, 2018.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Oil sands companies are stepping up protective measures as a spate of COVID-19 cases sweeps through the region at the same time that thousands of workers are being brought in for spring maintenance shutdowns at various plants.

In Friday’s update, Alberta reported 3,749 active cases in the North Zone that includes Fort McMurray, with outbreaks identified at several work lodges as well as at production facilities operated by oil sands producers including Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude, Imperial Oil Ltd., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and MEG Energy Corp.

“Our focus continues to be on the health and safety of our work force and communities and are maintaining our strict site protocols to prevent the risk of spread of COVID-19 as we continue to operate,” said Imperial spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt in an e-mail.

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The company has six active cases at its Kearl oil sands mine and 35 off-site, with all of the individuals in isolation either in a designated wing at one of its work force lodges or at home, she said.

The company started a voluntary vaccination clinic at the site on Monday morning and has implemented a rapid testing program to screen workers before they travel to Kearl, which is just beginning a scheduled maintenance “turnaround,” she added.

COVID-19 hot spot Fort McMurray weathers its latest disaster with frustration and resolve

As of Monday morning, Suncor had 107 active COVID-19 cases at its Base Plant mine and upgrader, 13 at its Fort Hills mine and nine at MacKay River, which uses steam to recover bitumen through wells, reported spokesman Paul Newmarch.

“To our knowledge, the rate of workplace transmission at any of our Suncor work sites is very low and the majority of cases have been attributed to community transmission,” he said in an e-mail.

Suncor is using rapid testing and plans to open a vaccination clinic at its Base Plant operations starting Thursday for employees as well as people who aren’t direct employees.

Last week, Suncor said it would delay a planned maintenance shutdown at Base Plant to avoid increasing the number of contractors in the region until similar work at the Syncrude oil sands mine is completed, a move it said would not affect production guidance.

As of last week, Syncrude had 369 active cases at its Mildred Lake mine and upgrader and 35 cases at its Aurora mine and extraction facilities, said spokesman Will Gibson.

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He said rapid testing of employees that started in April has identified numerous people with COVID-19 but no symptoms. More than 1,000 employees have been vaccinated.

Canadian Natural is also using rapid testing and recently vaccinated more than 1,600 employees and contractors, said spokeswoman Julie Woo.

“During our recent Horizon (oil sands mine and upgrader) maintenance period, we also used rapid testing of asymptomatic staff to help us quickly identify, contact trace and limit the spread of COVID-19 at our work site,” she said.

“Canadian Natural has completed the planned maintenance activities at Horizon and we have deferred a small scope of activities that are not essential to maintaining the safety of our assets in order to keep the number of personnel on site to minimal required levels.”

MEG Energy declined to comment on Monday but CEO Derek Evans said during a conference call last week that the company was able to eliminate the need for a turnaround this year by extending its maintenance work last spring.

“The elimination of a 2021 turnaround has been extremely helpful in managing the number of people at site from a COVID-19 perspective and the health and safety of our employees and contractors,” he said.

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Alberta leads Canada in COVID-19 cases and has a seven-day new infection rate twice that of the next highest province, Ontario. It tightened restrictions last week on retail, dining, personal services and gatherings to avoid pushing its health-care system beyond capacity.

It reported 1,980 new infections and 659 COVID-19 patients in Alberta hospitals, including 150 in intensive care, on Friday.

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