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Exclusive: Brazil battles dozens of coronavirus cases on offshore oil rigs

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - There have been 126 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among oil and gas workers in Brazil, including 74 people who were recently on offshore oil platforms, regulator ANP told Reuters on Tuesday, exposing an outbreak far worse than previously thought.

The regulator said via email that as of Monday evening there were another 897 suspected cases of coronavirus in the industry, which employs tens of thousands of Brazilians and is a key bulwark of Latin America’s largest economy.

Companies have been girding for outbreaks in the offshore oil industry, where employees often work, sleep and eat in close quarters. While isolated cases have been reported in other oil-producing areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, Brazil’s offshore fields appear to have been hit the hardest.

Although the impact on production in Brazil has been modest so far, skeletal staffing is already stalling development in some of the world’s most promising offshore oil fields, adding to uncertainty as global demand for petroleum dries up.

The ANP released the coronavirus statistics for the industry after a request for comment regarding an internal document from state-run oil firm Petrobras, seen by Reuters.

That document showed Petrobras had recorded 59 suspected coronavirus cases and 19 confirmed cases last week among employees and subcontractors in one deep-sea oil-producing region, known as the Santos Basin.

All 19 confirmed cases were located on one ship operated by Japanese oil services firm Modec Inc 6269.T, according to the document. The suspected cases were spread among a dozen offshore and nearby coastal facilities, including 11 suspected cases at a platform in the prolific Lula oilfield.

Petroleo Brasileiro SA PETR4.SA, as the company is formally known, said in a statement that the company does not publicize coronavirus cases in order to protect the privacy of employees and their families.

The firm added that it had taken stringent measures to protect offshore workers from the virus. Those include seven-day quarantine and monitoring periods before they embark, as well as evacuation of any offshore workers with respiratory issues, whether or not they appear to be coronavirus-related.

Modec also declined to release coronavirus statistics, citing privacy concerns. It said it quickly evacuated all employees after a worker was determined to have the coronavirus, and that it had adopted a series of measures to ensure worker security, including testing all workers before they go aboard.

FEARS MOUNTING

The coronavirus pandemic has heaped pressure on workers already fearful of losing their jobs, according to conversations with ten oil workers, executives and union officials, some of whom requested anonymity as they were not permitted to speak publicly. As in most oil producing regions, service firms in Brazil have laid off or furloughed thousands of employees, as rock-bottom demand for crude makes some oilfields unprofitable.

Two states at the heart of Brazil’s oil industry, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, are major coronavirus hotspots, with nearly 13,000 of the country’s more than 25,000 confirmed cases, according to Health Ministry data on Tuesday.

The dilemma is particularly intense at private firms, where workers have fewer labor protections and can be laid off more easily than at Petrobras, Brazil’s largest oil producer.

One executive at a major, Europe-based oil services firm told Reuters the company had prevented at least seven employees from entering its building in the coastal city of Macaé after exams at the front door indicated they had coronavirus symptoms.

The firm had collected evidence indicating some employees were taking paracetamol, a pain and fever medication, to hide symptoms, he said.

Adaedson Costa, the head of Brazil’s National Federation of Oil Workers, or FNP, criticized Petrobras for keeping unions in the dark about the number of coronavirus cases and deaths among its employees and affiliates.

Petrobras said it was in frequent dialogue with business partners to ensure they were following best practice regarding the virus. The company added that it had been talking “periodically” with unions, “evaluating the suggestions received and reporting the adopted measures.”

Reporting by Gram Slattery and Marta Nogueira; Editing by Brad Haynes and Rosalba O’Brien

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