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The Kearl Oil Sands project plant, belonging to Imperial Oil Ltd. (parent company Exxon Mobil), near Fort McMurray, Alberta is seen in this file photo from June 13, 2017.

Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

Health officials in British Columbia and Saskatchewan are advising people to self-isolate if they’re returning from an area of Alberta where an oil sands site is suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority said in a statement that it and the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority have begun a contact tracing investigation into new cases of the novel coronavirus in the province’s north that are related to cross-boundary travel.

Nnamdi Ndubuka, medical health officer with the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, said some of those new cases are linked with travel from Kearl Lake, an oil sands site north of Fort McMurray.

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“This is based on information we have so far — the investigation is still ongoing,” Dr. Ndubuka wrote in an e-mail. “We are also working with community health staff to identify individuals who might have been exposed to these cases.”

The SHA said that all northern Saskatchewan residents should self-isolate for 14 days after returning from northern Alberta, and advises against all non-essential travel between northwest Saskatchewan and northern Alberta.

The Interior Health region in British Columbia also advised Saturday that “contacts or potential contacts” with the Kearl Lake site should self-isolate for 14 days after their last flights home.

“Many residents in the Interior Health region travel to work camps in Alberta for employment,” a statement on Interior Health’s website said on Saturday. “There is potential for transmission between communities and between our provinces.”

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Friday the number of Alberta cases arising from the facility north of Fort McMurray had risen to 12.

Oil sands operators rely on workers from across the country who fly to sites and stay there for several days or weeks at a time, and the sites continue to operate amid the pandemic as an essential service.

Imperial, which owns Kearl along with ExxonMobil Canada, said as of Thursday it had two active COVID-19 cases on site, and 10 active cases away from the site.

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Simon Younger, vice-president of production at Imperial, said at the time that the company had completed contact tracing for these individuals and asked other workers to self-isolate while further testing was underway.

The company said earlier that it had bolstered cleaning and sterilization practices, and that employees are being screened at flight centres, on daily bus trips and at the site, including having their temperatures monitored.

It also said it took steps to ensure physical distancing at camp and on the worksite.

Alberta officials are tracking outbreaks at 34 care centres. There have been deaths at seven facilities, but 21 have occurred at Calgary's McKenzie Town Continuing Care Centre. The province is also taking over operation of the Manoir du Lac retirement home in northern Alberta, where there have been five deaths. The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2020.

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