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Prudhoe Bay worker tested positive for COVID-19, BP Alaska says

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A worker at BP Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil field has tested positive for the new coronavirus, and the company is taking steps to prevent further infections, a spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon.

BP has isolated the worker and quarantined others in connection with the case, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer. The worker is an Alaskan who had traveled outside the state and returned before the state enacted a health mandate requiring anyone returning from Outside to self-quarantine for two weeks, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Adam Crum said in a statement Tuesday night.

The man was screened before flying to the oil field March 25 and began feeling sick within two days of his arrival, Crum said.

“BP confirms a worker at Prudhoe Bay has tested positive for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19),” Megan Baldino said in a statement.

“BP is following procedures and protocols to minimize the risk of COVID19 and ensure the safety of our people," she said. “We are eliminating all non-essential activity on the slope. The safety and wellbeing of staff and contractors and respect for the communities in which we operate is our highest priority.”

BP and other oil companies have taken unusual steps to keep the virus out of the remote oil camps in Arctic Alaska, including temperature checks and travel screenings before workers can board jets to the oil fields.

This is the first confirmed COVID-19 case associated with the North Slope oil fields.

The case announced Tuesday shows that some people can be asymptomatic, or have mild symptoms, and not know they are infected until later. It’s why social distancing is so important to stopping the spread of the disease, Zink said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

“And this was an example of that: someone who got screened and then got up to the Slope and then started to feel ill,” she said.

Zink said state health officials have been working closely with BP and other companies to plan for their response. BP had numerous plans in place in case someone at Prudhoe Bay tested positive for the virus, she said.

“The great thing is that their team had a plan in place, had been able to quickly be able to test and identify, be able to quarantine other people as well as being able to isolate this individual,” she said. “And our (epidemiological) team continues to work around the clock helping to support them to try to figure out what needs to be done."

ConocoPhillips, another leading North Slope operator with a large workforce, said in a statement that there are no confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases at its North Slope operations.

“We have taken steps to minimize the spread of the coronavirus to our facilities. In the event that we have a suspected or confirmed case, we have plans in place to respond,” said spokeswoman Natalie Lowman.

Oil Search spokeswoman Amy Burnett also said there are no known or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the Oil Search Alaska workforce.

Requests for information from other North Slope oil companies, sent to operators Hilcorp and ExxonMobil, did not immediately receive a response on Tuesday.

Following discussions with state officials, BP is also quarantining out-of-state workers in Alaska before they can head to the work sites, Baldino said.

“We continue to review the latest information in this dynamic situation and when necessary are updating our guidance to BP employees and contractors,” she said.

About 39% of BP’s Prudhoe Bay workforce of about 1,000 employees live out of state, Baldino has said.

Baldino was unable to immediately answer additional questions, including the worker’s specific location and how this might impact operations at the huge oil field that is critical to the Alaska economy, if at all.

She said that BP is cutting back on some of the work it was planning this year. BP will still maintain existing oil production.

“With the safety of our workforce the priority, activity is limited to safety critical and regulatory compliant activity so we can focus on safe compliant operations. We can confirm we are ending this year’s 2-rig drilling program,” she said in a statement.

The decision comes amid a collapse in oil prices, sparked by the COVID-19 economic slowdown, and the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The price of Alaska North Slope crude on Monday reached $23.35 a barrel, the lowest price in many years.

Correction: A previous version of this story reported, based on what Dr. Zink told reporters Tuesday evening, that the BP Alaska worker was from out of state. DHSS commissioner Adam Crum later issued a statement correcting what Zink said, clarifying that the worker was an Alaskan who had traveled out of state.

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