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COVID-19 guidelines released for work camps

Industrial work camps must notify local health authorities on the slightest suspicion of an outbreak of COVID-19 under guidelines released by the provincial health officer on Monday. Dr.
An expansion at the Site C construction camp, March 2020.

Industrial work camps must notify local health authorities on the slightest suspicion of an outbreak of COVID-19 under guidelines released by the provincial health officer on Monday.

Dr. Henry has released a 12-page document of outbreak protocols and measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in industrial camps.

And those guidelines have a precise definition: "An outbreak is when two or more cases of fever and/or respiratory symptoms (cough, sore throat, runny nose, shortness of breath etc.) are detected in residents and/or staff within a 12-day period, with at least one case identified as a resident, or if any staff or resident is diagnosed with COVID-19."

There were four workers in self-isolation at the Site C work camp on Monday, down from 14 last week.

BC Hydro says any worker with symptoms of sneezing, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, cough, fever, or difficulty breathing is required to self-isolate. It also says there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Site C, but it's not known how many presumptive cases there may be.

It's also not known how many workers have been tested. Those numbers have not been publicly reported, and BC Hydro has not responded to a request for information for those figures. Instead, it reports daily just the number of workers in camp and how many are in self-isolation.

Henry's guidelines do not mandate workers be tested, but instead recommends "some testing of suspected cases."

BC Hydro says COVID-19 swab kits are available at the camp's medical clinic, and noted in a March 30 bulletin to workers that "testing procedures are being completed in accordance with current public health guidelines established by the Ministry of Health, which state that not everyone requires testing."

CLAC, the union representing workers at Peace River Hydro Partners, has confirmed some of its members who were quarantined were tested, and that those tests were negative.

The province says it continues to prioritize testing for health care workers and long-term care home residents, as well as those hospitalized or likely to be, or as part of an investigation of a cluster of cases or an outbreak.

BC Hydro has reported previous outbreaks of gastrointestinal virus at the Site C camp, and says influenza A, influenza B have also gone through in the past.

Much of the rest of Dr. Henry's work camp guidelines reiterate existing requirements for physical distancing, as well as hygiene standards and infection prevention, and protocols for medical clinics.

To read the guidelines, click here.

Close to 1,000 Site C workers have been sent home since a scale-back in construction was announced March 18.

As of Tuesday, there were 911 workers at the camp, down from an average of 1,700 for this time of year.

BC Hydro has implemented mandatory temperature checks at its security gates, and workers will also need to complete a Ministry of Health COVID-19 self-assessment before being allowed on site.

BC Hydro says any worker who refuses will not be allowed entry.

Any worker with a body temperature above 37.3 C, or who shows signs of symptoms, or answers 'Yes' to a question on the self-assessment, will be sent to the camp's medical clinic for further screening.

Any local workers recommended for self-isolation will be allowed to return home. Out-of-town workers will be transported to an isolation dormitory for monitoring.

"People waiting for a test result, or with positive test results, will be quarantined in an isolated and protected section of camp until there are two successive negative test results," BC Hydro said in its March 30 bulletin. "If someone is really ill with the virus, they will be safely transported to the Fort St. John hospital for treatment and care." 

Workers released from isolation are cleared to go back to work if there are no other health issues. But it's up to employers to decide whether to keep them working or to send them home, according to the bulletin.

'Unacceptable risk'

Dr. Henry continues to resist calls to shut down work camps during the pandemic, including Site C, even as the former chief health officer for Northern Health has called them incubators for the virus that puts communities like Fort St. John at an "unacceptable risk."

Dr. Henry said Monday that most work camps have reduced staff levels, and have extended the length of stay for workers who are still there.

"We don't want as many people coming in and out of the community," Dr.  Henry said. "It's important to recognize you can't just abandon a large mine or industrial site, that's not safe. It's not safe for the community or for the environment as well."

"Northern Health has been very active working with the industrial camps in the north to reduce the risks in those camps, and to make sure that they're scaling back appropriately to be able to put in place the measures that we have required ... in those facilities to reduce the risk to the people there, and also to the communities around those camps," she said.

In an open letter to Dr. Henry, former Northern Health chief medical health officer David Bowering called work camps "incubators" for the virus and urged Henry to order them to shut down.

"These are essentially land locked cruise ships and need to be dealt with as we have done with far less risky aggregations of people and workers across the province and across the world," Bowering said.

"The camps are and will be COVID-19 incubators placing the workers, the host communities , and the home communities of the workers at unacceptable risk."

Even some Fort St. John city councillors have called for construction at Site C to stop during the pandemic, expressing concern about the impacts a serious outbreak could have on the hospital.

"It is not an emergency service, it is not a front line service," Coun. Byron Stewart said at a March 24 council meeting. "I personally would just like to see the province step in and shut it down, and send everybody home."

Coun. Trevor Bolin agreed.

“If for some reason there was an outbreak at Site C our hospital would be inundated with patients that we could not handle, that our health system couldn't handle with the seven ventilators we have in the community,” Bolin said. "The promise that was made of this camp to not have a negative impact on the City of Fort St. John or its operations can't be met during this."

“They should just stop work until this is done ... I can't see them doing that unfortunately,” Bolin added.

BC Hydro has significantly cut back construction on the $10.7-billion hydroelectric project due to the pandemic, but has deemed all construction needed to divert the Peace River this fall as a critical priority so the actual building of the dam structure can begin.

BC Hydro says it has restricted non-essential employee travel and postponed non-essential site tours, meetings, and on-site training. All amenities at the work camp, including the theatre, gym, lounge, and common rooms have been closed, while self-serve dining stations have been eliminated, it says.

"They have deadlines to meet for the diversion tunnel, and so the majority of the people have already left the camp," Mayor Lori Ackerman said at a March 23 council meeting. 

"The entire south side is pretty much shut down, and the only project that is being worked on is the diversion tunnel. So they are able to carry on working on that with the proper protocols in place. They've done some pretty significant work on that, and actually the work that they have done, allowing their construciton to carry on with the protocols in place, are probably things that a lot of us can learn from. So this will not shut down the operations, it's just a shift for them at the camp."

This is a developing story.

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