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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

As fishing season got into full swing earlier this summer, new coronavirus cases per day were in the single digits. Alaska ranked lowest nationwide for cases and deaths.

Fishing towns began to hope they could dodge the COVID-19 bullet.

Until two weeks ago.

That’s when cases at fish processing plants began shooting up from a few dozen to more than 360, with spikes in Seward, Juneau and Anchorage, plus an outbreak aboard a factory trawler on the Aleutian Island chain.

In the state’s largest city, things are expected to worsen.

“With so many workers now testing positive, it is likely that this outbreak has been in progress for some time and that transmission has already occurred among family, friends and others in the community,” Dr. Bruce Chandler, the Anchorage health department’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.

Earlier, much of the concern was focused on rural Alaska. In villages and small towns accessible only by boat or plane, people have worried the thousands of workers coming for seasonal jobs would bring the virus with them. Some demanded the fishing season be called off, even though, the months-long season is when many earn most of their annual income.

“It's a little ironic actually, that where we got bit was here in town,” said Rich Monroe, chief financial officer of Copper River Seafoods, which owns the plant where the Anchorage outbreak occurred.

The plant discovered more than half of its 134 workers had COVID-19 during testing in mid-July. Almost all of its employees are locals in a city that is 12 percent Alaska Native. 

“I have no idea how it spread,” Monroe said. “We've met or exceeded any of the protocols that are recommended. In fact, even though we're a critical industry, and there's some relaxed restrictions, we've never taken advantage of those because we don't think the virus really distinguishes between what's critical or not.”

Monroe did, however, point to a slow turnaround time for tests, saying immediate results would steer an infected person to self-isolate right away, reducing other people’s exposure. 

Copper River Seafoods has processing plants in several Alaska fishing communities.

“If everybody got tested every day then we'd have this [pandemic] behind us. If we had testing every week, we'd have done a better job at this point,” Monroe said. “Testing is certainly a weak link, and that's not unique to Anchorage or Alaska."

The other three outbreaks were among mostly out-of-state workers.

The trawler had 85 confirmed cases, all nonresidents. In south-central Alaska, an OBI Seafoods processing plant in Seward turned up 139 confirmed cases, 11 of them locals. A Glacier Seafoods plant in Juneau, in southeast Alaska, had 62 confirmed cases, including one resident.

Location of COVID-19 outbreaks at fish processing plants in July 2020 (screenshot of a Google Earth image)

Trouble at sea

On July 18, the 285-foot trawler and fish processor, the American Triumph out of Seattle, arrived in Dutch Harbor in Unalaska with 110 crew members on board.

The crew had been tested and quarantined for two weeks. Still, when the trawler got to Dutch Harbor after a few weeks at sea, seven crew members were symptomatic. Of them, six tested positive for the coronavirus.

Unalaska's Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic, which has four full-time staff, tested the rest of the crew using rapid-response equipment and supplies. The crew was kept isolated from the community.

“It was really a rough, rough go … like till 4 in the morning when the clinic staff were tasked with doing all this,” said Chris Price, tribal administrator for the Qawalangin Tribe in Unalaska. The tribe is part of Unalaska's Unified Command, a response team made up of representatives of health care, the seafood industry, social services, the school and local governments. Alaska Natives make up 15 percent of Unalaska’s population.

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The CEO of American Seafoods, which owns American Triumph, said the company had made every effort to screen and test crews, place them in quarantine and sanitize vessels and belongings before going to sea. “Still, the virus reached us, just as it has so many others,” Mikel Durham said in a statement.

Melanee Tiura, chief executive of Iliuliuk clinic, told the news department at Unalaska public radio station KUCB, "I can't speak at this point [about] anything specific that was done wrong. We know this is a very infectious agent. It can be difficult to detect. Someone can be completely asymptomatic, can test negative and then still develop the virus days later. So, in a large vessel like this, the ability for it to spread is significant."

Crew members who tested negative took chartered flights to Anchorage to go into quarantine. The dozens who tested positive stayed on board as the American Triumph left Unalaska and took a 1,100-mile voyage to Seward, which has a deep-water port and road connection to Anchorage. They were accompanied by medical staff. In Seward, they boarded buses for Anchorage.

“All the cases we caught were because people were in quarantine, and they got tested, and then it was determined that they had the virus,” Price said. “But because they were quarantined, it protected the rest of the community. It didn't spread locally. That's the key.”

Seward outbreak

Seward is another town that is 15 percent Alaska Native. Like the crew aboard the American Triumph, workers at the OBI fish processing plant there had been tested and quarantined.

On July 17, an OBI fish processing plant worker went to the doctor for a non-coronavirus health matter and was tested as a matter of routine. The results came back positive for COVID-19.

Local health officials tested the rest of the OBI plant workers. A few days later, results showed that of the plant’s 262 workers, 96 tested positive.

Nonresident workers who tested positive were sent to Anchorage to recover. Of the 11 residents who tested positive, two moved into company housing to quarantine. The other nine opted to recover at home.

New testing, quarantine protocols

The processors are paying for all the costs of housing, transportation and care for people who tested positive or were exposed to infection.

At a news conference this week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the seafood and processing industry has done a pretty good job in testing and quarantining its employees.

“There hasn’t been a lot of spread from processing operations into our coastal communities,” he said.

Alaska Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said state officials are working with the industry to come up with new testing and quarantine protocols.

“We have an opportunity to just curtail this and keep these little surges contained, so it doesn't affect community spread,” he said, noting he expects to have new guidelines within a few weeks.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ann Zink said seafood processors and the state did a lot of work to quarantine and isolate people who were initially coming into the communities “because we knew it would be so hard to be mitigating the risk once they were working in close contact.”

“We saw that with the meat processing plants in many other states,” she said.

Zink added she is grateful there have been no large outbreaks until now.

“I wish we still didn't have the ones that we did but really appreciate the partnership with the industry as well as the communities to try to mitigate these outbreaks as quickly as possible,” she said.

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Indian Country Today national correspondent Joaqlin Estus is a longtime Alaska journalist.