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12 of Alaska’s 35 new coronavirus cases are seafood workers in Dillingham

Aerial view of Dillingham. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

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A dozen of Alaska’s new cases of COVID-19 reported Tuesday by state health officials are out-of-state seafood workers in Dillingham, a small fishing town with limited health care capacity where locals had been wary of outsiders bringing in the virus.

The 12 workers are among 19 new cases in nonresidents, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. That’s the highest daily nonresident count since the pandemic began in March.

The state’s active-case count also hit new high of 264, as reported Tuesday. That number reflects residents who test positive and aren’t yet considered recovered.

The state reported one new resident sick enough to be hospitalized Tuesday, for a total since March of 63.

Along with the nonresident cases, the state reported another 16 new cases in Alaska residents, most of them in Anchorage, with other individual cases scattered from Nome and Bethel to Mat-Su, Homer and Fairbanks.

The 12 new Dillingham cases were reported Tuesday as part of the state’s data on nonresidents. Another four seafood workers tested positive as of Tuesday: two in Ketchikan and two in an area described by the state as Valdez-Cordova. Two mining workers in the Fairbanks area and a visitor to Anchorage also tested positive.

The 12 seafood workers in Dillingham all work at the OBI Seafoods Wood River seafood processing plant, according to a statement from the company.

All of the employees were asymptomatic, the company said. After testing positive, they were isolated in a separate facility on the company’s property.

All of the employees who tested positive were in the same quarantine group and housed in one bunkhouse, said OBI spokesperson Julianne Curry.

“The company is working closely with local officials and State of Alaska health representatives to identify further quarantine and testing recommendations, initiate contact tracing, and identify any potential risks to employees and the community,” OBI said in the statement.

The employees all had negative COVID-19 test results prior to arriving in Dillingham, after initially getting tested in Seattle, Washington, the company said.

On the sixth day of a two-week quarantine after arriving in Dillingham, the 12 employees were tested and those results came back positive, according to the company.

Non-residents

Every OBI employee goes through a symptom and temperature check each day, the statement said. The company also added more personal protective equipment protocols and closed their campuses before the season began, according to OBI.

In May, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Icicle Seafoods announced they were merging components of the two under a new company, OBI Seafoods, the Associated Press reported.

On Sunday, three OBI employees at the Excursion Inlet salmon processing plant in southeast Alaska also tested positive for COVID-19, said Julianne Curry, spokesperson for OBI.

“All of the processors are running closed campuses this year, so nobody in and out except for designated runners that are then segregated from the rest of their workforce,” said Jamie O’Connor, public information officer for the City of Dillingham.

The OBI plant is on Wood River Road and separate from town, O’Connor said.

“While we are always concerned to hear about positive cases of COVID-19 in Dillingham, the protection plans in place caught these cases during quarantine and are helping to prevent community spread,” Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby said in a written statement. “We encourage everyone to continue to be cautious and follow state and local protective measures including Dillingham’s quarantine and testing requirements.”

Dillingham city and tribal leaders in early April asked Alaska’s governor to consider closing the $300 million Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery, saying the annual influx of workers posed a grave risk to the region’s limited health care infrastructure during the coronavirus pandemic.

Courtenay Carty, tribal administrator at the Curyung Tribal Council, the federally recognized tribe of Dillingham, stressed the importance of processors and fishermen getting tested before arriving in in Southwest Alaska.

“If it wasn’t for all of this testing, that either the companies themselves are mandating or that the state is mandating, then we wouldn’t know that COVID is in our community,” Carty said.

Carty also stressed the importance of individually following health guidelines such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding crowds while in Dillingham.

The Arctic Slope Native Association announced a resident of a North Slope community who had initially tested negative for COVID-19 through rapid testing last week ended up with a positive confirmatory result on Tuesday.

After learning of the result, a rapid response team from Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital tested the resident again and offered testing to their close contacts. All of those results were negative, a release from the association said.

Two similar scenarios have occurred with negative rapid tests and subsequent positive confirmatory results in the North Slope recently. One person who tested positive in a confirmatory test last week is considered recovered after a negative result, the release said.

The new infections bring Alaska’s total since March to 907 -- 778 in residents and 129 in people from out of state.

Twelve Alaskans have died with the virus including two residents at the Providence Transitional Care Center in East Anchorage experiencing the state’s largest outbreak of the virus.

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