Sites of Edmonton's longest COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces can stay open despite new closure rules

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Some of the Edmonton region’s longest-running COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic have been at sites that are exempt from the province’s new closure rule because they are deemed critical.

As of May 10, most Alberta workplaces in areas with high cases will be ordered closed for 10 days if three or more COVID-19 cases spread on site. Last week, the government released a list of exempt sites such as warehouses, petrochemical businesses and food production.

A Postmedia analysis of archived Alberta outbreak lists found Amazon’s warehouse in Nisku, Inter Pipeline’s (IPL) Heartland Petrochemical Complex (HPC) in Strathcona County, and Edmonton Sofina Foods sites were each listed for more than five months total after several, separate outbreaks in the last year– longer than any other site in the region outside health-care, corrections, schools and shelters.

Once listed, sites retain outbreak status for at least 28 days after the person with the most recent COVID-19 case begins showing symptoms, according to Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson. The minimum number of cases to join the list has increased since last year and varies by setting.


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HPC, Amazon: 5.5-month outbreaks, over 100 cases

Amazon’s warehouse and HPC were both on outbreak status for more than five-and-a-half months total over the last year after several outbreaks occurring at separate times at each site. Both have had more than 100 cases, and both have outbreaks right now.

There were 82 COVID-19 cases in Amazon’s first outbreak which started Nov. 14 and lasted until March 20. Less than a month later, it was back on outbreak status and by May 14, there were 29 cases, six of which are still active.

Amazon spokesperson Dave Bauer said in an email the company has spent $11.5 billion on safety at their facilities and health measures are in place. He said there is contact tracing and testing on site and employees can quarantine for two weeks with pay.

“Nothing’s more important than the health and safety of our employees, and we’re doing everything we can to support them through the pandemic,” he said.

In Strathcona County, IPL’s $4-billion propane-to-plastic plant construction site, which is partially funded by the Alberta government, currently has outbreaks, according to data provided by Alberta Health.

There have been 112 cases in three separate areas of the site since January – all three outbreaks are ongoing and there are 18 active cases. Seven cases were found in an outbreak that started last October.

IPL spokesman Steven Noble said in an interview that while fully eliminating cases would be ideal the company follows health rules to keep the more than 3,000 workers onsite daily safe.


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“The level of collaboration and partnership between Inter Pipeline and all of the contractors has been essential to keeping the positivity rate low on site,” he said.

Asked if they would voluntarily shut down for two weeks, both Bauer and Noble only said the companies will comply with local rules.

Two Sofina Foods sites had 70 cases total over five months. Forty-seven cases were confirmed at the 127 Avenue location since December. There were 23 cases in outbreaks starting in June, January and March at the 56 Avenue site.

Sofina Foods didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Critical workplaces

Before closure criteria was set, Premier Jason Kenney said the province needs to take a flexible approach to outbreaks.

Sites like oil sands work camps would be difficult to close, he said, but the rules send a message to employers to respond to outbreaks quickly and keep people safe.

“Those are the kinds of situations where AHS is going to have to work nimbly with the operators if and where there are outbreaks,” he said at a May 7 press conference.

NDP labour critic Christina Gray said long-running outbreaks are concerning for workers’ safety. She said provincewide paid sick leave would help.

“Mandating that workplaces stay open with providing those extra supports is essentially Jason Kenney telling Albertans that their labour is essential but their lives are not,” she said in an interview.

Outbreaks can spread to community: experts

Dr. Stephanie Smith, infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital, said there is a risk large outbreaks can spread COVID-19 into the community.


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“If they acquire COVID at work and then they come home and they’re in a household with multiple people, then there’s a high risk of them transmitting to people in their household,” she said.

“Anything that continues the cycle of community transmission is going to make it harder to get this third wave under control.”

But closing isn’t the only option. She said strong health measures and ensuring employees get time off for vaccines or if they fall sick are key.

Former Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. James Talbot said businesses with extended outbreaks should consider shutting down temporarily.

“At some point, you have to do a calculation whether the half-measures that you’re using – which are clearly not working – are something that you’re going to continue with, or whether you’re going to go into something more severe.”



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