This story was jointly reported by the Seattle Times and the Anchorage Daily News.
Alaska officials will allow seafood industry workers from other states equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, a policy shift made Wednesday in the aftermath of outbreaks that flared in plants and offshore processing ships.
“While working in our state or fishing in our waters, we intend to protect your workers with the same standard of care we are extending to all Alaskans,” said a letter emailed Wednesday from the office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy to seafood and other industry officials.
Alaska seafood workers are vital to producing the fish burgers and other staples of the nation’s seafood supply. They often are at risk for serious outbreaks of the novel coronavirus that in recent weeks has infected hundreds and stalled production at some major plants.
Most are not Alaska residents. For weeks, state officials have told seafood industry representatives that their employees, if they come from other states, will not be eligible for receiving vaccines when other industry workers from Alaska are offered these shots.
Many of these industry workers are employed by Seattle-based seafood companies that make up much of this industry.
“They fall into this gap,” said Ann Jarris, chief executive officer of Discovery Health MD, which consults with Alaska seafood companies about COVID-19. “We have been working with Washington to address that. We’ve been working with Alaska, and we have been trying to work on the national level.”
Alaska officials Wednesday announced changes in vaccine eligibility timelines, which could enable some seafood workers 50 years in older to start getting vaccines as soon as this week, and others under a timeline that has yet to be determined.
Later in the day, Dunleavy’s office emailed the letter to “Alaska Critical Infrastructure Industries” that makes clear the vaccine opportunities extend to non-resident workers.
The tensions over who is responsible for vaccinating these workers reflects a still-evolving federal allocation system that has been keyed to distributions based on states’ populations even as some agricultural industries rely on large numbers of workers who reside elsewhere. They also are another reminder of the sometimes wrenching decisions made in determining priorities for still-scarce vaccines.
In the letter sent to industry officials, Dunleavy’s chief of staff Ben Stevens and Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said the state has not received any additional vaccines from the federal government to cover workers from out of state. “We ask your industries to recognize the additional burden this places on the Alaska healthcare system ... ,” said the letter.
In a Wednesday evening news briefing, Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said the state received additional “clarity” from the federal government on whether Alaska could restrict vaccines to residents. She said that the state will now coordinate with Washington state and the federal government on the vaccination effort for seafood processing and other “critical workers.”
“It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen all at once,” Zink said.
Washington state officials note they have their own migration of seasonal labor as more than 20,000 guest workers arrive each year from Mexico and other countries to work in agriculture. They say those workers, once they arrive in Washington, will have the same priority as resident workers in getting vaccines.
The Washington Department of Health also has provided 100 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to help inoculate shipboard medics on fish-processing vessels working off Alaska, and will try to provide additional supplies for processing crews as they become available.
“The problem is — anybody else we move up in line pushes somebody else out of line,” said Michele Roberts, the acting director for prevention and community health at the Washington Department of Health. “I think there are a lot of special circumstances and this is a good example of people who really have unique circumstances.”
Outbreaks roil industry
Alaska’s seafood industry supports some 26,000 processors whose work helps produce 2.8 billion pounds with a processed value of $4.7 billion that represents two-thirds of the U.S. seafood harvest, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. More than 70% reside in the Lower 48 states or other countries, and thousands work in the huge winter harvests focused largely on crab, pollock, cod and other ocean fish. Thousands more arrive for the spring and summer salmon harvests that unfold in dozens of coastal communities.
The presence of these workers has complicated efforts to determine how the vaccines get distributed within Alaska.
The “state’s allocation is currently based on regional population alone, and does not take effectively account for our remote location, limited access to health care, seasonal population influx or industry, an significant number of individuals living in close quarters and congregant settings,” wrote Erin Reinders — city manager for Unalaska, an Aleutian Island hub of the seafood industry — in a Feb. 9 memorandum.
The perils that the pandemic poses for seafood workers have been on stark display this winter as COVID-19 has found its way into three Aleutian Island onshore plants and at least three factory ships, including Trident’s Kodiak Enterprise, which had seven positive cases detected. The worst outbreak has been at the massive fish and crab processing facility that Seattle-based Trident Seafoods owns on Akutan, which is located some 760 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Aleutian Islands chain.
At the Trident plant in Akutan, the infection, first detected in mid-January, quickly spread through more than 40% of the 706 workers at the sprawling facility. Plans to bring in medical supplies — and evacuate at least three sick workers to Anchorage — were complicated by stormy weather that delayed some flights to the isolated Aleutian location, where processing has yet to resume.
Since the start of the outbreak, Trident officials evacuated 150 “high risk” workers to an Anchorage hotel. One worker also died at the Akutan plant during the last weekend in January of a cause yet to be publicly disclosed.
All of this caused big concerns for relatives of the Trident employees.
Juvic Alcanse has tried to stay in touch with her brother, an Alaska-based Trident worker from Seattle. He was temporarily moved to another remote company facility in Sand Point and has so far escaped infection. But two other relatives still at the Akutan plant have tested positive for COVID-19, and Alcanse wants Alaska to give equal priority to all processing workers. “It didn’t even dawn on me that they might not get vaccinated at the same time” as resident workers, she said.
Trident’s Akutan plant, one of North America’s largest, remains temporarily shut down amid the peak of the winter harvests.
“We have every belief that it is under control. We are not going to bring in additional workers and resume work before we are sure that there is no spread,” said Stefanie Moreland, of Trident Seafoods.
Genetic testing underway for virus variants
Trident has been financing two-week quarantines and testing that all workers must go through. These protocols attempt to keep the infection from the company’s Akutan plant, which operates as a closed campus where employees live in congregate settings. Trident is now offering meals, lodging and testing for any workers wishing to leave due to the pandemic.
The scope of the outbreak has raised concerns that a mutated strain of COVID-19 may have been present at the Akutan plant. A state of Washington laboratory is currently conducting a genetic analysis of a sample but results are not expected until later this month, according to Jarris, of Seattle-based Discovery Health MD.
Jarris has been on the frontlines of the seafood industry struggle to secure a high priority for workers in the lineup for vaccines.
Jarris notes that many seafood industry workers are ethnic minorities who may live in multigenerational homes, which they help support through these long-distance commutes to Alaska. She is hoping that additional federal allocations of vaccines could be made to Washington or Alaska, or both states.
“This is about equity,” Jarris said.
Zaz Hollander is a reporter with the Anchorage Daily News. Hal Bernton is a Seattle Times staff reporter.