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Alaska News

Governor criticizes Daily News article, saying Alaska requires seafood workers to cover their faces

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy posted a video Thursday criticizing the Anchorage Daily News for “numerous inaccuracies” about state requirements for seafood processing companies.

The governor was referring to a story published Wednesday that included a recommendation from the Trump administration COVID-19 task force that Alaska require seafood plant workers wear face masks. The task force made the same recommendation for the state’s numerous communities with rising numbers of coronavirus cases.

Face coverings were always expected of seafood processors in Alaska this season, state officials said Thursday.

The state’s four largest outbreaks occurred in seafood facilities (including a factory trawler) where more than 350 workers have tested positive, including at least two sick enough to need hospitalization. State epidemiologists have not officially provided specifics about how the outbreaks originated, though at least one started from someone in the community bringing the virus into a plant.

The state is in the middle of a surge in coronavirus cases, and seeing increasing hospitalizations sparking concerns about health care capacity. On Thursday, the state’s health department announced the 23rd death of an Alaskan with COVID-19. There were 2,489 active cases of the illness statewide, with 120 new positive results reported Thursday.

The federal COVID-19 task force made the seafood plant mask recommendation in a July 26 report distributed to all states.

Dunleavy on Thursday afternoon posted a 2 1/2-minute Facebook video where he held up the newspaper and read parts of it aloud, criticizing it as spreading misinformation. Dunleavy also criticized the Daily News for not reaching out to the administration and the seafood industry about existing mandates before the article was published.

“We’ve required masks in seafood processing plants since May 15,” he said. “It’s in our mandates.”

The state mandate he referenced does not explicitly require masks be worn by seafood workers, as the federal task force recommended.

Instead, the governor was referring to a section of a state health mandate that says, “During processing work, a clear face shield may be worn as PPE in lieu of a cloth face covering, in order to facilitate communication between workers.”

That section represents the state’s mandate on face coverings for seafood processor workers, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said in an interview Thursday.

The original version in a draft of the mandate required masks, but the language was changed to include shields after some companies expressed concerns about moist working conditions and employees with language barriers, state officials said.

The seafood industry understood that section to represent the face covering mandate, even if it isn’t explicitly clear to the general public, Crum said.

The mandate also requires seafood workers to wear masks during travel and during 14-day quarantines upon arrival at the facilities where they will work.

State officials have said the quarantines initially kept any infections within plants from spreading to local communities. Some of the current outbreaks occurred at plants where there was mixing between work and the community at large.

The state drafted the mandates quickly when coronavirus outbreaks began in meatpacking plants in the Lower 48 and worked closely with industry on their development, state officials say, adding that wearing face coverings has always been expected of seafood processors even if that’s not explicitly stated in the mandate.

The state also addresses face masks in community protection plans each company files for review by health officials to make sure they are satisfactory, said Jason Wiard, the state’s Deputy Division Director of Critical Infrastructure Sustainment Branch within the state’s COVID-19 unified command. Wiard is a former seafood industry employee who also works with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Officials from the start of this year’s fishing season looked to see what each company said it was doing about face coverings in those plans, Wiard said.

“Every time,” he said. “If they don’t mention any kind of PPE or if they don’t mention face coverings, we’re asking what are you doing about face coverings? And if it’s not for processing workers, what about visitors that are coming to your plant?”

Crum and Wiard said they can’t say for certain that all plants are enforcing face covering mandates.

“I know there are some that are very very diligent,” Wiard said. “They’re being checked. They’re keeping logs.”

Larger operators put quality assurance programs into place, though medium or small plants may not have the resources to do that, he said.

The federal COVID-19 task force reports aren’t always accurate about the current state of practices in Alaska, Crum said. State health officials reach out to the COVID-19 federal task force if necessary.

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, plans to clarify Alaska’s requirements for face coverings, he said.

The state is discussing new mandates for the seafood industry in light of the recent outbreaks, officials said this week. State officials are also considering rewriting the seafood mandates to make them more clear.

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