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Alaska’s daily coronavirus count surges to new high driven partly by seafood industry outbreaks

Marvell Robinson of Capstone Family Clinic instructs Alex Koehler on how to administer the COVID-19 nasal test at the testing site in Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 17, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

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Alaska on Monday reported a new daily high of coronavirus infections, a spike driven partly by outbreaks aboard a seafood industry trawler and at a plant operated by a Juneau fish processor.

Alaska’s lucrative fishing grounds draw thousands of fishermen and processing workers. Under plans submitted to the state, seafood companies are required to test employees, often multiple times, and enact quarantine protocols to keep the virus from spreading to small communities with limited hospital beds, if any.

The state reported 141 cases in residents and nonresidents Monday including 64 among seafood industry workers. State and corporate officials declined to say whether any showed symptoms.

Sicker patients bring the potential to overwhelm the state’s limited health-care capacity. Less ill patients aren’t likely to tax hospitals but could infect older or vulnerable people who could need medical care.

The state’s report Monday includes 41 of the cases associated with a major outbreak among American Seafoods employees working together on the American Triumph, a 285-foot factory trawler at sea since it headed to Alaska for pollock fishing on June 27. The vessel is one of six owned by the Seattle-based company.

A total of 85 crew members out of 119 have tested positive for COVID-19. Seven reported reported symptoms and were tested after they arrived in the Aleutian Island fishing community of Unalaska last week, with six testing positive. Another 79 tested positive in follow-up screening in Unalaska.

The clinic in Unalaska where the testing occurred, Iliuliuk Family & Health Services, took precautions to protect local residents, according to Melanee Tiura, the facility’s chief executive.

“Our team followed appropriate protocols for caring for individuals at risk for or with COVID, and the company also went to great lengths to ensure the safety of both the crew and our community,” Tiura said in an email. “The virus was identified very early on in the time that the vessel was present in the community, which helped us to mitigate the risk. No direct contact has been identified with any community member at this time.”

Unalaska has no critical-access hospitals. The nearest emergency room is in Anchorage, nearly 1,000 miles away.

Before the Alaska voyage, all crew members quarantined for at least 14 days and passed all public health protocols in order to board the vessel, American Seafoods said in a statement.

It’s unclear how the outbreak began. Company officials said Sunday none of the employees showed symptoms before the trip started in late June.

Earlier in the season, three of the company’s vessels experienced 119 positive COVID-19 cases including four people on the American Triumph. The outbreaks prompted American Seafoods to switch from pre-boarding testing coupled with quarantines of at least five days to longer two-week quarantines.

American Triumph left Unalaska’s port of Dutch Harbor on Sunday night with infected crew members and medical personnel on board. The boat is scheduled to arrive Wednesday in Seward, where the infected crew will be loaded directly onto buses waiting at the waterfront to travel to Anchorage for isolation and monitoring, Seward officials say.

Thirty-four crew who tested negative for the virus flew by charter from Unalaska to Anchorage, where they were expected to undergo quarantine and symptom monitoring.

An Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesman did not respond to questions Monday seeking more information about plans to quarantine and isolate the American Seafoods crew members in Anchorage.

Suzanne Lagoni, a representative from American Seafoods, said in an email on Monday that the decision was a joint one between the company, the state, the U.S. Coast Guard, and officials in Seward, Unalaska and Anchorage.

Lagoni declined to confirm the exact location where the crew members would quarantine. She said the facility would be “locked down with security measures in place.”

The other seafood outbreak is associated with a family-owned plant where 35 processor employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Alaska Glacier Seafoods opened a processing plant just outside Juneau in 2005 and normally processes more than 10 million pounds of fish a year with almost 150 employees in peak season, according to the company website.

Alaska Glacier Seafoods screened 113 employees after nine employees tested positive last week, local officials said over the weekend. The cluster began with one employee infected through community spread.

Testing performed in coordination with the City and Borough of Juneau revealed another 26 positive results Saturday night. The state reported 21 of the new cases on Monday.

Overall, the new cases reported Monday also included 52 confirmed infections among Anchorage residents alone, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard. One nonresident also tested positive in Anchorage. Officials say people in their 20s account for the largest number of new cases.

Last week, Anchorage set a record for the most new cases in a week, with 131 total cases and an average of 31 new cases a day. But data from the previous few days show that this week could be on track to hit more new highs: on Saturday, there were 35 new cases reported in Anchorage residents and nonresidents, followed by 36 on Sunday and a record 53 on Monday.

As the outbreak grew, health officials in Anchorage last week issued warnings about future intensive care unit capacity if increasing counts continue at this pace. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said he was considering implementing new restrictions if cases continue to rise.

The new record high tops the state’s prior record for daily cases — established a day earlier, on Sunday — that saw 119 new infections statewide.

The state reported no new deaths on Monday. Eighteen Alaskans have died with the virus. A total of 100 people have been hospitalized with the virus since March.

Statewide hospital capacity remains relatively stable, as providers in Anchorage and Fairbanks wait to see if a rise in people seeking emergency care translates to hospital admissions. Anchorage hospitals reported 14 COVID-19 patients on Monday and another 9 under investigation with 41 ICU beds available out of 92, according to a municipal dashboard.

Local officials in Ketchikan also reported three new cases in that Southeast city in addition to the state’s tally, including one in a seafood worker.

The worker, as part of the company’s mitigation plan, was tested upon arriving in Ketchikan and came up positive when tested again Monday, according to a Ketchikan Gateway Borough release. The person has no symptoms, and is now in isolation and under monitoring.

A Ketchikan resident who traveled out of state tested positive at a local clinic, officials say. And a traveler into Ketchikan experiencing no symptoms also tested positive following airport screening.

A City and Borough of Juneau employee tested positive and is in isolation, officials there say. The employee is not in a public-facing position and there is no known work-related exposure.

There were 1,563 people with active coronavirus infections around the state as of Monday out of a total of 2,414 reported since the pandemic began in March. The state’s three-day average testing positivity rate — the number of positive tests per total performed — rose to 2.5%, the highest it’s been since mid-April but still overall a relatively low number compared to many other states. Officials here acknowledge Alaska’s testing rates are higher than many because of the state’s early aggressive testing efforts but also a high proportion of screening tests for workers and travelers that can skew positivity calculations.

The state on Monday reported new cases in 49 Anchorage residents and 3 people from Chugiak; 1 person in Homer, 2 in Kenai, 1 in Seward and 1 in a smaller northern Kenai Peninsula community; 1 in the Denali Borough; 7 in Fairbanks; 2 in Palmer and 5 in Wasilla; and 1 in Bristol Bay and Lakes and Peninsula boroughs.

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