A Prudhoe Bay worker becomes the first COVID-19 patient in Alaska’s North Slope oil fields

Meanwhile, the North Slope Borough is enacting tighter screening for travelers entering the borough through Utqiagvik.

By Yereth Rosen - April 1, 2020
Pipelines snake through the Prudhoe Bay oil field, in a 2018 file photo. A worker at the field became the first person in Alaska’s Arctic oil fields to test positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. (Yereth Rosen)

A worker at the Prudhoe Bay oil field has tested positive for COVID-19, state and industry officials said.

It’s the first case of the novel coronavirus illness to strike the Arctic oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope.

The worker is an Alaska resident who had traveled outside the state, state officials said. He arrived on the North Slope on March 25 and fell ill about two days later, state officials said. He was put into isolation and is being treated, state officials aid

A BP spokeswoman said the company has pared back its oil field operations in response to the incident.

“BP confirms a worker at Prudhoe Bay has tested positive for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). BP is following procedures and protocols to minimize the risk of COVID19 and ensure the safety of our people,” spokeswoman Megan Baldino said by email. “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.”

The ill worker’s travel to the North Slope occurred just before Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an order limiting movements between communities within the state. But it came after Dunleavy’s May 23 order requiring all travelers from out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days. The ill worker’s travel to the North Slope also coincided with new BP rules that included extended work rotations and self-quarantine requirements for workers traveling to the North Slope. ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s top oil producer, has also lengthened work rotations and imposed quarantine rules.

Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a Tuesday news conference that the patient had been isolated on the North Slope and was being treated. Initially, Zink identified him as a worker from outside the state. But later Tuesday night, Adam Crum, the state’s commissioner of health and social services, released information clarifying that the patient was an Alaskan who had traveled out of state recently.

Of the 133 identified cases of COVID-19 in Alaska as March 31, none was classified as occurring north of Fairbanks. Zink said that the patient was classified by his home city and that his case would not be counted as one in the northern region.

The worker’s resident status was pointed out by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the industry’s trade group.

“Point of clarification: Slope worker who tested positive for COVID-19 is an Alaska resident. Companies are prioritizing employee safety and working 24.7 to keep everyone safe while still producing oil and protecting communities,” AOGA said on Twitter.

The North Slope Borough has put in place additional screening for passengers traveling to the borough through the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiagvik, the region’s main gateway. (Jeroen Stroes Aviation Photography / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The mayor of the vast local government in northernmost Alaska said BP was working with local officials to avoid any spread of the disease.

“BP is following procedures and protocols to minimize the risk of COVID19 and to ensure the safety of our people and their workers. They are reducing all non-essential activity on the slope. The person is quarantined, along with some of his co-workers. The person has had no contact with any North Slope residents and flew up recently on a private charter,” North Slope Borough Mayor Brower said in a statement released late Tuesday.

Brower had earlier issued an order that slightly loosened a ban on travel to the North Slope villages imposed by a previous order. The new order, effective on March 28, allows for some travel to the eight communities in the borough. But anyone flying from Anchorage to Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) — the main way that people reach the North Slope communities — must undergo a health screening before boarding the flight and present evidence of that screening upon landing, according to the new order. Failure to present such evidence could subject offenders to fines of $500, according to the new order. The borough has been working with Alaska Airlines to ensure that a more thorough health screening is conducted on the flights from Anchorage, Brower said in his message.

The new order removes a requirement for waivers allowing travel but otherwise does not make big changes to the previous order, Brower said in his Tuesday night message. The main policy remains, ensuring that “all travelers will be heavily restricted from coming into the Borough by AIR, LAND, AND SEA, for at least the next 2-4 weeks per State, Federal, Tribal, and North Slope Borough law and jurisdiction,” he said. “There will be a small number of exceptions for medical personnel and those servicing critical infrastructure or those who were possibly stranded while traveling between mandates that get their health screening.

The North Slope Borough travel restrictions are among a series of emergency rules adopted by rural Alaska communities seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Aside from the Prudhoe Bay case, there were no identified cases of COVID-19 in the North Slope Borough, Brower said in his message. And state records showed no cases in western or southwestern Alaska as of March 31.