New COVID-19 fears as nation's top salmon season nears launch

Ekuk Fisheries plant located 16 miles south of Dillingham. (Photo by Misty Nielsen

Joaqlin Estus

'They haven’t exposed the community because they haven’t been out in the community'

A worker from out-of-state tested positive for COVID-19 in Dillingham where the enormous Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery is due to kick off in mid-to-late June. The Trident Seafoods worker had been in quarantine and does not require hospitalization. Trident Seafoods is transporting the individual out of Dillingham “out of an abundance of caution,” read a State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' statement.

Dillingham Public Health Nurse Gina Carpenter stated the individual was one of a group of workers who arrived in Dillingham and immediately went to their place of quarantine, where they had no contacts with anyone outside the group. In accordance with the Trident Seafood's state-approved plan to prevent the spread of the disease, groceries and other necessities were delivered. No one left quarantine for any reason, read the statement.

“They haven’t exposed the community because they haven’t been out in the community,” Carpenter said. “This shows the benefit of these rules. These workers did everything right and followed the quarantine and testing requirements laid out in Trident’s industry plan.”

The worker’s illness was discovered after being tested at the end of the group’s 14-day quarantine. The worker who tested positive was immediately isolated from the others in the group. The others tested negative but, as close contacts of an infected person, will now begin another 14-day quarantine period. KDLG reports that to come out of quarantine, the workers will have to receive a minimum of two negative tests, including one at the end of their quarantine period.

The Alaska department of public health, the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, the City of Dillingham, and the Alaska-based Capstone Clinic are working together to provide free local testing upon referral from a physician.

As Indian Country Today reported earlier, the Bristol Bay fishery is one of the largest in the nation. More Sockeye salmon are caught in Bristol Bay waters off western Alaska than anywhere else in the world, and Bristol Bay ranked number two in the nation in 2019 for the value of fish landed.

KDLG’s Isabelle Ross reports “the off-season regional population is around 6,700, which is spread out through many small communities. During the fishing season the population balloons up to nearly 22,000.” 

Last month, local tribes, the regional Native-owned-and-operated health provider, Bristol Bay Health Corporation, and the City of Dillingham, asked the state to close the fishery. Gov. Mike Dunleavy instead has worked with seafood processors and other businesses to create safeguards to prevent the spread of the coronovirus. 

UPDATE: In early May, another fisheries seasonal worker, employed by Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Cordova, tested positive for COVID-19. Alaska has had 388 confirmed positive cases and ten deaths due to the coronavirus. 

Corrected: to show the Bristol Bay salmon fishery usually starts in mid-to-late June, not June 1.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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