The urgent job posting from a company contracted to provide medical care at the Trident Seafoods plant in the tiny Alaska village of Akutan on a hard-to-reach island appealed to the wilderness lover:
“Are you interested in an Alaskan ADVENTURE? Seasonal positions available! If you are energetic, professional and would be interested in a remote setting, this assignment might be the spot for you!”
In reality, the job involved serving as a nurse practitioner for North America’s largest seafood processing facility, idled since mid-January amid a coronavirus outbreak that has infected nearly half its 700 workers. Trident officials say they had nothing to do with the ad.
As of Tuesday, 307 of the 706 workers from the Aleutian Islands plant had tested positive for COVID-19, Trident officials say. They declined to say how many required hospitalization as of this week. At least three infected employees needed medical evacuations last month.
An employee died at the plant last weekend, Trident confirmed Tuesday. No additional information was available.
As of Tuesday, 206 of the 554 employees remaining at the plant had COVID-19, according to Trident spokesman Shannon Carroll. The company also transferred roughly 150 “high risk” workers -- both positive and negative for the virus -- to an Anchorage hotel because they have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19.
Daily test positivity rates at the plant dropped over the past week to a low level of around 1% as of Wednesday, according to Stefanie Moreland, Trident vice president of government relations.
The company says it’s working on plans for employees who have finished isolation and quarantine to return to work, and is arranging lodging, meals and monitoring for employees who want to leave.
The outbreak appears to be coming under control now.
But several people affiliated with the plant who spoke to the Daily News, but didn’t want their names used because they didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs, described a lack of broad testing that allowed infections to spread fast before the first cases were discovered in mid-January. They also say the outbreak immediately overwhelmed the sole health care provider staffing the plant medical clinic — a reality that Trident also acknowledges.
At the time the first cases surfaced, just one advanced registered nurse practitioner provided medical care for a facility with more than 700 workers, with remote backup from a physician. That staffing level had served the company well enough since the plant started operating in the 1980s.
The sudden rush of COVID-positive workers quickly became more than one person could handle.
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The Akutan plant is a massive facility that can process 3 million pounds of raw fish a day. At peak capacity, company-housed employee numbers swell to 1,400, a diverse workforce that includes people from countries including the Philippines, Ukraine and Somalia.
The plant is a processing hub for Bering Sea harvests of pollock, crab and cod. Crab and cod seasons were underway already when Trident announced the closure. The pollock season began Jan. 20. Pollock, a small white-fleshed fish found in abundance in the Bering, is part of a multibillion-dollar industry that churns out everything from fish sticks to sushi.
Operating a plant in remote conditions on an island prone to bad weather is hard enough. Operating once COVID-19 made its way into tight quarters and close working conditions with limited medical facilities became an almost unprecedented challenge.
Generally, seafood industry insiders praise Trident as setting the standard when it comes to COVID-19 protocols in place to protect coastal communities. The industry has protocols in place to deal with outbreaks, but sometimes it just takes time, said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats.
“Look at the millions of dollars that Trident Seafoods is spending right now,” Paine said. “They’re paying their crews. They’re transporting them if (they) need to be in Anchorage. ... They’re shut down.”
When the first COVID-19 cases surfaced in mid-January, the plant scrambled to bring in enough test supplies as weather delayed flights. East Aleutians Tribes supplied the first kits, state officials have said. Eventually more supplies came in.
People at the plant say it was quickly clear that more people had COVID-19 symptoms than were getting tested.
The first COVID-19 infection was reported on Jan. 17 in a worker being evacuated for a separate health problem. Three roommates tested positive. One of them worked in the galley, potentially infecting many others.
By then, the virus was already speeding through the plant.
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Trident now has six advanced registered nurse practitioners and an aide working at the plant’s medical clinic, company officials say. The clinic needs to be self-sufficient because there’s no hospital within hundreds of miles and just a small clinic in the village itself.
“When the virus was first detected, we had a clinic that was capable of addressing routine medical needs in Akutan. We also were relying on our telemedicine provider,” company spokesman Carroll said in an email. “Shortly after the first case was detected, we dramatically increased the number of medical staff onsite.”
The company is maintaining higher levels of medical care for the near future, he said. Trident last month flew in additional medical supplies like ventilators and breathing machines.
Employees are checked twice daily and screened by medical staff.
The company is testing negative workers daily using a strategy approved by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Carroll said.
“Our results indicate that our quarantine and isolation protocols are controlling the spread of the virus,” he said.
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It’s still not clear exactly how the virus got into the plant.
The Akutan plant, about a half-mile from the tiny village of about 100 people, operates as a closed campus. It’s likely some kind of breach occurred in the protocols the company says it has required since March: a mandatory 14-day monitored quarantine at an Anchorage hotel, testing prior to arrival, chartered travel to Akutan and tight controls on who could enter or leave the facility.
Those protocols were necessary, Trident officials say, because testing resources weren’t available when the season started last year. This year, materials were sharply limited as well with additional supplies made available only recently.
Those still at the plant are getting paid to stay in quarantine — at 40 hours a week, with a $1,000 bonus — and moving only from their rooms to the galley or for smoke breaks. Monitors are making sure workers stay 6 feet apart, sanitize their hands and wear masks, according to a January letter to plant employees provided by a family member.
“While these measures are very strict, your cooperation will help all of us contain the virus and get back to work as soon as possible,” the letter from plant manager Dave Abbasian states. “Failure to follow protocols could set back timelines for all of us.”
Trident on Jan. 21 shut down for three weeks to allow the outbreak to abate. Another big Aleutian plant experiencing a major COVID-19 outbreak — UniSea in Unalaska — reopened for pollock and crab processing on Sunday, according to company president Tom Enlow. The facility remains under lockdown, meaning all employees must stay in housing when they’re not working or eating.
Since the year began, UniSea has had 80 employees test positive for COVID-19 including 21 caught during quarantine, Enlow said. Of those, half remain infectious and isolated. None had more than mild symptoms and most have or had no symptoms at all, he said.
Trident doesn’t yet know exactly when the Akutan plant will resume processing.
The company is using plants in St. Paul, Kodiak and Sand Point, as well as the the 356-foot floating processor Independence to keep seafood operations moving and make markets available to fishermen, officials said Wednesday.
“We will open the facility when the risk of the virus is eliminated,” Carroll said.