In a special council meeting held Sunday evening, councillors in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo passed a motion to declare a state of local emergency in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The state of local emergency, officially declared Monday, means council will be voting on a number of enhanced measures at its next meeting on Tuesday.
Councillors also passed a motion Sunday to make a request to the provincial and federal governments for an accelerated vaccine distribution for Wood Buffalo. They also passed a motion that local leaders call for an urgent, emergency meeting with the premier, ministers and federal leaders.
“It signals that we are taking this extremely seriously,” RMWB Mayor Don Scott said Monday.
According to the most recent COVID-19 data released Sunday, the RMWB has an active case rate of 1,320.1 per 100,000.
“We are currently number one in Alberta, unfortunately, when you look at the per-capita numbers,” Scott said.
“We’re not sure exactly what the cause is. We keep hearing it’s the variants. Another factor in this region is we have a young population… but that young population has not qualified for the vaccines necessarily so that is one of the challenges that we’re facing.”
Premier Jason Kenney said a lot of the transmission in the region has “occurred at work camps where people were socializing after hours and not wearing masks, not taking those basic precautions.”
“I don’t say this to blame anybody. I think it’s totally understandable that people who work long hours and don’t have opportunities to socialize with family in those camps or staff quarters will sometimes get together and perhaps just kind of forget momentarily about the rules in place.”
The mayor said since Sunday’s meeting, Kenney has been in touch with him. Scott said what’s happening in his region was going to be discussed by Alberta’s COVID cabinet committee on Monday.
“We want to know what support this region can receive from other levels of government and one of the most obvious, I think, is further vaccine support if supply can be provided,” Scott said.
Kenney said he shares the municipal government’s concerns about the region’s high numbers. He said the idea of shipping more vaccine to the area is “one possibility” but also added the province has provided a lot of support for the region, including providing rapid test kits to oilsands work camps.
“We are prepared to provide additional supply to the extent that we can. Obviously, our overall supply is constrained which is a problem everywhere,” Kenney said.
“I would point out that there’s, every day, been a significant amount of unused supply that’s already been made available to folks in that region.”
Kenney said the province and AHS are working with the local government to ensure people are able to access vaccine, including at work camps. He said the groups will also work together on issues of vaccine hesitancy, if that’s the case.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro also pointed out that 430,000 vaccine appointments are currently booked throughout Alberta at pharmacies and through AHS.
“We’re happy to have conversations obviously with the regional municipality tomorrow to understand what their request is more specifically, but I think we also have to point out that we don’t want to be taking away vaccines that have already been booked by those who have made those 430,000 appointments.”
A statement from the office of Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver said the government is concerned by the recent surge of cases in the municipality.
“As we enter a third wave province-wide, we’re encouraging all RMWB residents and all Albertans to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible,” spokesperson McKenzie Kibler said.
“Unfortunately, our ability to provide those vaccines is limited by the number of doses we receive from the federal government.”
The province said COVID-19 supports are available to all Alberta residents, including 14-day hotel stays for those who need to isolate and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.
In a statement Monday, Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said very high case rates in Fort McMurray are having an impact on capacity at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.
The baseline number of ICU beds at the NLRHC is seven. Williamson said the hospital has expanded to nine ICU beds and there are currently nine patients in the ICU. He said the hospital has the ability to expand ICU capacity if needed.
“The NLRHC COVID-19 unit can care for a range of COVID-positive cases depending on need.
On Monday, there were 10 COVID-19 patients on the COIVD unit and another 12 COVID-19 patients being cared for at the hospital, Williamson said.
“Hospitals remain safe places to receive care; however, it is critical that people continue to follow the most recent health guidance, and get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.”
Williamson said beginning Monday, about 40 elective surgeries at NLRHC have been postponed. A number of ambulatory care services are also being limited and minor surgical procedures in ambulatory care will be cancelled, Williamson said.
“These changes will allow NLRHC to expand inpatient beds if necessary and create more capacity for COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization.”
As of April 23, there were 33 sites in the North zone listed on the province’s COVID-19 outbreak list.
Outbreaks at northern Alberta oilsands sites
While it’s not known exactly what’s driving the spread in the area, several oilsands sites are listed on the province’s outbreak list, including the CNRL Horizon site in Wood Buffalo.
Global News spoke to a man who works as a contractor at the CNRL Horizon site. Global News agreed not to publish his name out of fear he will lose his job.
The man came down with COVID-19 symptoms on Sunday, April 18. He tested positive and is currently isolating at a hotel.
“I was dealing with flu-like symptoms: headaches, achy bones, sore throat, the whole works,” he said Monday. “Still not doing well.”
He said he has been working at the CNRL site since late March and hasn’t left since he was bussed to the isolation hotel last week. He raised some serious concerns about the conditions at the work site.
“They’re not doing any sanitizing or anything on the buses. So people get on the buses and people get off the buses and it’s thousands of people and no sanitization is being done in between drops,” he said.
“Lunchrooms are full to capacity, which really is surprising. I thought they would do more in that aspect, but they’re also not sanitizing in between shifts — between day shift and night shift.”
He is concerned about the safety of his coworkers.
“A lot of my coworkers are getting sick. It just doesn’t seem like anyone is caring about what is happening out there. Too many people are getting sick and they’re basically playing with people’s lives because COVID has been known to take people’s lives,” he said.
“It just seems like they’re not doing anything to help people.”
In a statement Monday, CNRL spokesperson Julie Woo said the company has implemented “significant measures” into its daily operations to reduce COVID-19 risk.
“These stringent measures continue to meet or exceed Alberta Health Services (AHS) guidance and they are applied consistently during standard operational activities and maintenance periods,” Woo said.
Woo said the company’s precautionary measures have also been enhanced. These include documented daily health checks, screening protocols prior to boarding company transportation, physical distancing in camp and dining room facilities, as well as stringent response protocols when staff are symptomatic.
“We also have medical personnel on site at our oilsands mining facilities to complete health assessments, including point-of-care rapid testing of symptomatic site personnel and close contacts of positive cases,” Woo said.
According to Alberta Health, 632 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the outbreak at CNRL’s Horizon site. Of those, 300 are active and 332 are recovered, Alberta Health said Monday.
Both of Syncrude’s operations in the region are also on the outbreak list.
Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson said Monday morning that employees who do not have a site-critical role are working remotely. He said because the company plays a crucial role in supplying electrical infrastructure in the province, the company is doing everything it can to keep its employees safe.
“We’re continuing to follow well-established COVID protocols,” he said. “We’ve encouraged our workers to get vaccinated if they’re eligible.
“In the meantime, our focus is on our COVID protocols and ensuring people are following them both at the workplace and in the community.”
Gibson did not have site-specific information on how many employees are currently positive for COVID-19. He said since the pandemic began, 627 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. That includes people who work at the Mildred Lake and Aurora sites in the RMWB, as well as offices in Edmonton and Calgary. Of those 627 cases, Gibson said 348 have recovered.
“One thing that our assessments have shown is that the majority of cases that are showing up at Syncrude, they were caused by community transmission,” Gibson said.
Alberta Health said Monday there have been 32 COVID-19 cases linked to Syncrude’s Aurora site, 18 of which were active. There have been 496 cases linked to the Syncrude Mildred Lake site, 195 of which were active Monday.
A Monday statement from the Oil Sands Community Alliance said it is currently in talks with the municipality to find out more about the potential state of emergency.
The organization said it is working with AHS to build on the measures in place to reduce COVID-19 risk and exposure.
“Since the start of the pandemic, oilsands operators have had strict protocols in place and sites are limited to critical and essential staff only,” read a statement from OSCA.
OSCA said since the start of the pandemic, isolation camps have been set up for people who test positive for COVID-19, and those individuals are removed from the general workforce population right away.
With variant cases of COVID-19 surging across Alberta, OSCA said rapid testing is being used once or twice per day.
Dr. Craig Jenne is an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. He said he’s not surprised to see the recent surge in cases in the Wood Buffalo region.
“We have to keep in mind that many people that work in these areas also travel into the area for work periods but then return back to other centres for time off, including centres such as Calgary and Edmonton where we’ve seen the virus already surging,” he said.
“There’s an opportunity then to transport virus from areas that are already spiking into areas where maybe the virus wasn’t as prevalent.”
Jenne noted that variant cases of concern, which now make up more than 61 per cent of active cases in Alberta, are helping fuel the rapid spread. He said without additional restrictions, case counts aren’t likely to rapidly decrease.
“Although our provincial numbers are now almost as high as they were in the peak in December, we still have fewer restrictions in place. So although the viral burden, the threat to spread in the community is as high as it’s ever been, we still have more businesses, more activities open. So these will continue to drive viral spread,” he said.
“Whether we have to look at limiting travel, increasing screening of people within work camps and better isolation procedures, or reduction in overall workload until such time as vaccines can be deployed, what is clear is that something has to change.”
Fort McMurray moves all grades to online learning beginning Monday
Fort McMurray’s Catholic and public school divisions announced they have received approval to move all grades to online learning from Monday, April 26 to Monday, May 10.
Last week, it was announced that students in Grades 7-12 would be learning online.
In a statement released Sunday, the school divisions said the move is due to the continuing increase in COVID-19 numbers as well as staff and students in isolation.
The request was approved Sunday by the Ministry of Education, according to a joint statement.
“We want all students to be in school, but with this recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Fort McMurray we know this is a difficult, yet correct decision. We need to once again come together as a community and work together to stay safe,” George McGuigan, Fort McMurray Catholic Schools Superintendent, said. “The numbers in Fort McMurray are currently staggering and schools are simply a reflection of our community.”
“There are two months left in our school year and we need the whole region to work together to help our students finish our school year safely.”
As of Monday morning, Fort McMurray Catholic Schools said over 1,000 students and more than 100 staff members were isolating due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the community.
— With files from Heather Yourex-West, Global News
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