A seasonal worker in the Southwest Alaska city of Dillingham has tested positive for COVID-19, state officials said Saturday.
The Trident Seafoods worker was tested for the virus at the end of a two-week-long quarantine process, according to an electronic statement from the state’s COVID-19 Unified Command Joint Information Center.
The worker will isolate in Anchorage and was set to leave Dillingham on a flight chartered by the company on Saturday evening, said Shannon Carroll, an associate director of public policy at Trident Seafoods.
“There was a request from the community that they would feel more comfortable if that worker was transported out, and we wanted to make sure we respected that request,” Carroll said.
The worker was one of five Trident Seafoods workers who arrived and quarantined in Dillingham on May 1.
The region is preparing for the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery, the biggest by volume in the world. Last year, the total value of the catch set a record at $306 million. Trident is one of nearly a dozen seafood processors that offered a plan earlier this spring to ensure safety as processing workers, fishermen and others stream into the region.
Trident Seafoods operates a barge owned by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham, Carroll said, and generally there are about 15 Trident Seafoods workers in the city over the summer.
The group was quarantining in Trident living quarters at the company’s office there, Carroll said. Though Trident Seafoods received information from the state that quarantining workers individually was ideal, if that wasn’t possible, they could do so as a group, Carroll said.
“So, if one person gets sick, the entire cohort is really considered sick,” Carroll said.
The group of workers was not tested for the virus prior to their arrival in Alaska, Carroll said.
Given that those workers were in close contact with the person who tested positive, they must all continue with another 14-day quarantine and test negative again, Carroll said.
Most of the other Trident workers will be quarantined and tested in Anchorage before heading out to the respective fishing communities, Carroll said. Going forward, the company will also have the workers who are sent to Dillingham tested and quarantined in Anchorage, Carroll said.
The workers arrived in Dillingham and went straight to a quarantine location, the statement said. They didn’t have contact with people outside of that location and have had groceries and other supplies delivered, the release said.
“They haven’t exposed the community because they haven’t been out in the community,” Gina Carpenter, a Dillingham public health nurse, said in the release.
The Trident worker is the fourth seafood industry worker to test positive for COVID-19 in Alaska, according to the state’s health department. An Ocean Beauty Seafoods worker in Cordova tested positive for the virus in early May after traveling from the Lower 48. And the state of Alaska announced Friday that a non-resident seafood industry worker had tested positive for the virus in Anchorage.
In early April, Dillingham tribal and city leaders wrote a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy asking him to consider closing the commercial salmon fishery over concerns about the Bristol Bay region’s health care capacity.
Additionally, last month the Bristol Bay Area Health Corp. asked through a public letter that the fishing season stay closed. The health corporation serves 28 villages in the region.
“Historically, we’ve been able to accommodate and care for the influx of visitors and their related fractures and other injuries typical of the fishing season,” the corporation’s president and CEO Robert J. Clark wrote in the letter. “However, if COVID-19 comes to our region, even the handling of our summer injuries may be next to impossible. We are genuinely concerned about our capabilities to absorb several hundred potential COVID-19 cases."
Companies that continue to operate amid the pandemic submit plans to the state, said Jeremy Zidek, public information officer for the state’s Unified Command, and so far over 1,800 plans have been submitted.
Zidek said the state’s rationale for opening the fishery is based on the low number of COVID-19 cases in Alaska, the state’s expanded health care capacity and the processes for which the seafood industry is trying to detect cases among workers.
The Cordova and Dillingham workers who tested positive for the illness before leaving quarantine show that the process has worked so far, he said.
First Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council Thomas Tilden said months of work have gone into preparing Dillingham and the Bristol Bay region.
“It is really assuring to see that we have things in place that are working. The plan is working to protect us,” Tilden said during a call with radio station KDLG.
Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby said during the call that the city has since increased testing and that it is now available to anyone there. The mayor said that commercial fishing is important for Dillingham and the city has been preparing to protect “residents and visitors alike.”
“As fearful as we were of how the season would begin, the fact that this worked in this situation gives us some hope that we can make this work for the season,” Ruby said.
On Saturday, several Bristol Bay organizations distributed a letter asking the state to require more stringent quarantine and testing procedures for incoming workers.
“Alaska Airlines jet service starts Monday with full flights set to offload hundreds of untested passengers, primarily fishermen coming from out of State, in Dillingham and King Salmon,” the letter said.
Norman Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., said he felt a better solution would include having incoming fishermen quarantine at Anchorage hotels and get tested there before traveling to the fisheries.
He said it wouldn’t be meant to push the problem onto others, but given the limited health care capacity in many remote parts of the state, it would be a more preventative approach.
“We’re about a month before the major onslaught of people into the region. And I think that this is really taken as a warning shot,” Van Vactor said of the recent case.
On Friday evening, the state of Alaska released more detailed guidelines for workers traveling to seafood processing facilities and onboard processor vessels including a 14-day quarantine period, a symptom screening and testing requirements.
Last week, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, along with the senior medical officer at the federal Department of Homeland Security, Dr. Alexander Eastman, traveled to several remote communities statewide to discuss COVID-19 preparedness.
The group of health officials traveled to Dillingham and other nearby communities on Thursday, Zink said during a Friday call with reporters.
“We’ve seen cases like this in other places and when we’re able to quickly identify them, isolate them, quarantine people associated, we’re really able to prevent the transmission to others in the community,” Zink said during the KDLG call on Saturday.
On Saturday, the state’s health department released information that a total of nine non-Alaska residents have tested positive for COVID-19, including four seafood workers, two visitors, two airline industry workers and one mining industry worker.
[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]
• • •
• • •