Some in North Sask. on "pins and needles" after Orano COVID-19 case confirmation

A confirmed case of COVID-19 at the McClean Lake uranium mill in northern Saskatchewan on Sunday worried Candyce Paul, who co-ordinates English River First Nation’s emergency management team.

She’s one of the region’s many residents who helped fight outbreaks in the spring. For her, the confirmation from Orano Canada Inc.’s operation at McClean Lake raised concern about the people who work there and will return home to northern communities that are short on health supports, she said.

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It’s kind of got everybody in the north on pins and needles.”

As of Sunday, three employees were isolating after contact with the person who tested positive. Orano spokeswoman Carey Hyndman said more have taken the measure since. She was unable to estimate how many are isolating; none of them have tested positive for the virus so far. The one positive case was likely contracted off-site, according to the company.

In a statement issued on Sunday, Orano CEO Jim Corman said the company “prepared for this circumstance,” adding employee health and safety is its highest priority.

The McClean Lake facility, located about 750 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, processes uranium for Cameco Corp.’s Cigar Lake mine. Cameco spokesman Jeff Hryhoriw said “the possible risk to our Cigar Lake staff resulting from the positive test … is very low” and that production will continue as planned.

Paul said the whole region is home to people who work at McClean Lake. She wants access to more public information about the case to share with community members who may be worried over the news, she said.

The chance of community transmission is “nerve-racking,” considering links between regional outbreaks earlier this year and workers returning from Alberta, she added.

Others said they consider the confirmed case an unfortunate but likely set of circumstances.

Pam Schwann, president of Saskatchewan Mining Association, said “while it is disappointing to hear of a case, it’s not unexpected.”

She said the mining sector’s health precautions and contact tracing will minimize the impact on northern communities.

Bruce Fidler, executive director of northern municipalities organization New North, said the confirmed case was surprising, but the company’s precautions are encouraging.

Île-à-la-Crosse Mayor Duane Favel said Orano has been in contact with him and other mayors over the situation. He estimated about four residents of his community fly into the facility for work, leaving him concerned over possible contact in the common areas there.

“As community leaders in northern Saskatchewan, I think we’re all concerned that the second wave of COVID-19 could infect a lot of our northern residents, especially the ones that are vulnerable,” he said.

“Our biggest fear is that we start to lose people in our communities in high numbers.”

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