COVID-19 outbreaks at two of Alaska’s largest seafood processing plants, both in the Aleutian Islands, are shutting down operations just as lucrative crab and pollock seasons get underway.
The remote Trident Seafoods plant in the tiny community of Akutan, 35 miles east of Unalaska, is reporting four coronavirus cases — three processing workers and a galley employee — prompting concerns about additional infections that could be hard to contain.
A separate outbreak at the UniSea plant in Unalaska has the facility on lockdown after 55 workers tested positive for the virus since January, about two-thirds of them during travel quarantine, which is intended to catch positive cases. Forty-five workers were still considered infectious as of Tuesday.
The Trident outbreak is the first for the company’s closed-campus plant there, officials say.
Industry observers expected the start of this winter fishing season to bring a whole new set of coronavirus challenges compared to this time last year.
Beginning last March, plant managers in places like Unalaska and Akutan tried to keep out-of-state workers on site. Isolation, little community spread and the lack of risky travel kept cases down. But companies couldn’t hold workers in place indefinitely.
This year, workers are traveling from out of state. Community spread is occurring in Alaska now, which brings new risks in places like Kodiak or Unalaska, where many residents work in seafood plants and may inadvertently bring in the virus.
The source of the Trident cases is under investigation. Company officials trying to pinpoint any sources of infection say they expect it will take several weeks to “ensure no risks remain.”
Some 365 plant employees are waiting in Anchorage while the company sorts out the potential for more cases in the 700 already at the plant, the company said this week. At full staffing, the number of people working at the plant dwarfs Akutan’s local population of about 730.
Trident is evaluating what the new cases mean for plant operations.
The first cases were discovered Sunday after one employee developed trouble breathing and was medevaced by the U.S. Coast Guard to an Anchorage hospital, according to a statement issued Monday by the company. That’s a potentially alarming sign given the way COVID-19 can compromise lung function in more severe cases.
The worker tested positive for the virus while getting medical care, then all three of his roommates also tested positive. All four tested negative two weeks earlier after quarantining for 14 days in Anchorage.
The company “is taking the possibility of exposure ‘very seriously’,” Trident said in the statement, adding the infections were detected despite “rigorous preventative measures” including 14-day quarantines, sanitation protocols, personal protective equipment, testing, “safe transit” guidelines, and temperature checks.
The UniSea outbreak began with four cases but 20 more surfaced by the weekend, as first reported by KUCB Radio in Unalaska. Company officials say a New Year’s gathering in company housing was the source.
The plant, with 700 employees in Dutch Harbor and another 60 waiting in Anchorage, took one delivery of cod before shutting down, according to company president Tom Enlow. All processing is halted at least until the end of the month.
Crab season started last week, and the plant was gearing up for the winter pollock fishing season that starts Wednesday, Enlow said. The little silver fish end up in everything from fish sticks to the fake crab used in sushi.
The UniSea pollock fleet co-op consists of 11 trawl vessels, plus around 15 crab boats.
At this point, the earliest the plant could take a delivery now is Jan. 27, Enlow said, and that’s only if mass testing of roughly 450 employees Tuesday “goes well.”
Close working conditions and workforces that mixed locals and out-of-state employees made it hard to stop the virus. But the industry spent millions on testing, quarantine and isolation plans.
State health officials have said they didn’t find any evidence that seafood cases led to major community spread.
Officials in Unalaska say the ongoing outbreak appears contained to the plant.
Both ongoing outbreaks are occurring with prospects for COVID-19 vaccinations still weeks, if not months, away.
Seafood industry representatives asked the state to prioritize workers for inoculation against the virus during a public comment session in late December and again this month.
“Seafood workers live in close quarters where COVID is exceptionally difficult to mitigate,” Luke Fanning, CEO of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, told an advisory committee in December. “And if they do get sick, they don’t have access to medical services: obviously, there are no ICU departments on fishing boats.”
Both federal and state guidelines include seafood workers in the “essential worker” category that also includes grocery store employees.
In Alaska, resident seafood workers are part of a much larger group of people that includes teachers, prison inmates and people living in shelters who will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine in the next phase. Nonresident workers are part of a group that won’t be eligible until after that, industry officials say.
Most of the state’s seafood processing workers aren’t from Alaska. A report last year estimated that residents made up about 7,500 of the 26,000 total, industry officials say.
For now, the state’s vaccine supplies are only going to health workers, long-term care centers and Alaskans 65 and over.
State health officials have said that, depending on federal supplies to come, it could be March before the next groups can get vaccinated.
Daily News reporter Annie Berman contributed to this story.