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Coronavirus causes ConocoPhillips to temporarily cancel flights for workers to North Slope fields

An aerial view of Deadhorse, Alaska in 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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ConocoPhillips has canceled flights for hundreds of workers to the North Slope for the next two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The company is asking critical personnel who produce oil from the company’s North Slope fields to stay on for an extra multiweek rotation, ConocoPhillips said in a statement sent Tuesday to contractors and employees.

The statement said that effective immediately, “we are asking all business-critical North Slope personnel supporting ConocoPhillips operations (both contractor and ConocoPhillips employees) to extend their shift by two weeks.”

“All flights north for regularly scheduled shift changes have been canceled for the next two weeks,” the statement said. "We will be working to arrange transportation off the Slope for those who cannot extend their stay.

“Please note that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the North Slope at this time,” the statement said.

The statement was provided by Natalie Lowman, a spokeswoman with ConocoPhillips.

An official with BP, now the operator of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, said Wednesday that the screenings for flights to its fields continued.

In Alaska and beyond, the number of cases continues to grow. State health officials on Wednesday announced there are now nine confirmed cases in Alaska. More than 200,000 cases have been reported globally in recent months.

The virus has stalled commerce, helping contribute to plunging oil prices and a slowdown in the North Slope oil patch, including for ConocoPhillips.

ConocoPhillips, BP and other oil companies have been screening workers for COVID-19 symptoms before they take off from Anchorage for the North Slope oil fields.

Alaska’s oil fields have a high concentration of out-of-state workers who fly through Anchorage for multiweek rotations.

On an average day, about 2,000 BP employees and contractors work at Prudhoe Bay alone.

ConocoPhillips and BP have taken steps to keep their employees at home but still working remotely, whenever possible. That’s especially when workers show any signs of sickness. They’ve implemented steps to encourage social distancing, and eliminated nonessential travel.

Both oil companies said their workers’ health and safety is their top priority.

Several major oil companies in Alaska got together about two weeks ago and created the plan to screen workers arriving at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said Heidi Hedberg, director of the public health division of the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The testing includes temperature checks for fevers, a series of health-related questions and the worker’s recent travel history, officials said.

Beacon, a company that provides workplace health and safety services, is conducting the airport checks for BP and other oil companies, said Amanda Johnson, the company’s vice president of medical and training services.

Beacon provides similar services for the mining and fishing industries, among others, she said. Overall, thousands of workers are screened before heading out to hard-to-reach work sites in Alaska.

“We are partnering with (companies) to protect the isolated environment that presents higher risks for exposure and difficulty for evacuation," she said.

Megan Baldino, a spokeswoman with BP, said the answers can lead to a quarantine.

“Anyone having been in or traveled through highly impacted countries within the last 14 days is required to self-quarantine for 14 days from return and monitor their health — even if they have no symptoms,” an emailed statement from Baldino said.

“If they experience symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty with breathing), they are advised take steps to isolate themselves, seek medical advice, notify BP and not come to work while ill,” she said.

Both oil companies said they’re closely monitoring the spread of the virus globally, and following state and federal guidance to slow it.

ConocoPhillips, which flies workers to the North Slope using a separate service from BP, had also implemented the airport screenings in Anchorage.

“If passengers have an above-normal temperature, have visited a location where the virus is widespread in the last two weeks, or have symptoms, they are not allowed on the plane, and are asked to obtain a medical release before returning to board a flight,” said a statement from Lowman before the company announced the two-week flight cancellation. “We’re also sanitizing all aircraft after every flight.”

Conoco employs medical personnel on the Slope who are trained in dealing with infectious diseases like COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, she said. The company has changed dining room seating to promote social distancing and prepared a quarantine program based on federal guidelines, Lowman said.

The oil company has a contingency plan for an outbreak of coronavirus, Lowman said. Lowman did not provide additional details on the contingency plan. The company is also making sure that contractors are preparing “continuity of operation and emergency response plans,” the statement from Lowman said.

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