Alaska News

By plane, boat and man basket, COVID-19 vaccines flow to Alaska’s Aleutian seafood workers

Thousands of Alaska seafood workers are getting vaccinated for COVID-19 three months after outbreaks swept through Aleutian plants, shuttering some just as the lucrative Bering Sea fishing season began.

The effort is taking different forms, ranging from clinics in Sand Point to a one-day mass event in the Unalaska gym and aboard Dutch Harbor boats that vaccinated about 1,500 plant workers and deep-sea fishermen.

Probably the most only-in-Alaska method involved Eastern Aleutian Tribes community health aide Joe McMillan, who on Thursday clambered into a small man basket suspended in the air to swing aboard two large processing vessels and vaccinate more than a hundred people on each.

The doses now going into seafood worker arms are coming from a federal allocation provided to Eastern Aleutian Tribes rather than from state supplies of vaccine.

They came via a Biden administration plan to expand vaccine availability to community health centers in underserved communities. The Eastern Aleutian Tribes is one of just two tribal entities in Alaska participating in that program as of March 22.

The tribal health organization has probably given out 2,500 shots in the past week and 4,000 since January, according to CEO Paul Mueller, who described one chartered flight Wednesday to deliver food and vaccine that skipped from Nelson Lagoon to Cold Bay, False Pass, Sand Point, Dutch Harbor and King Cove.

McMillan and Mueller spent Thursday in Dutch Harbor and Sand Point with Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, and other top state vaccine officials.

Mueller took video of Zink vaccinating a seafood worker wearing an orange safety vest, blue hard hat and several shirts that he had to push up on his arm.

“You got a lot of layers on there, my friend,” she said, joking as she prepared the needle. “What do you think, you’re like in Alaska or something?”

Zink also shared video of McMillan’s trip in the man basket as it swung in the air, seagulls keening below.

Each year, tens of thousands of people travel from around the world to work in Alaska’s fishing industry.

The coronavirus earlier this winter swept through numerous seafood processing plants and fishing vessels here, temporarily shuttering several Aleutian plants.

The outbreaks added urgency to existing calls from the seafood industry to prioritize vaccine for workers, many of whom come from other states or countries and live and work in close quarters, even as other groups including teachers returning to in-person classrooms also clamored for access.

State officials for weeks told seafood industry members they did not plan to vaccinate out-of-state workers.

But last month, the Dunleavy administration announced it was opening vaccine eligibility to all seafood industry workers, including nonresidents. That’s even though state officials said they weren’t getting any extra vaccine to handle the group.

For some industry members, the vaccine comes after they’ve already been infected with COVID-19.

The worst outbreak came at the largest seafood plant in North America: the Akutan facility operated by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods. The plant brings as many as 1,300 workers to a Bering Sea community with barely a hundred year-round residents to process cod, crab and pollock, a billion-dollar industry.

[Alaska now to offer vaccines to non-resident seafood industry workers buffeted by COVID-19 outbreaks]

At the Akutan plant, the first cases reported in mid-January quickly spread through more than 40% of the 706 workers on site.

Now more than 2,000 Trident employees — including those at Akutan — have been vaccinated, a corporate spokesman said. That also includes workers in Sand Point, the Gulf of Alaska and St. Paul Island.

State officials credited the tribal health organization for getting access to the extra doses in an effort to protect community members.

“This was a really great effort by the Eastern Aleutian Tribes. They worked with us to identify an allotment of vaccine that wouldn’t normally come to Alaska,” said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “It was vaccine that was allotted to a federally recognized health care provider. And it was separate from the state’s formal allotment.”

Mueller said his mission is to take care of the communities the tribal health organization serves: Adak, Akutan, Cold Bay, False Pass, King Cove, Nelson Lagoon, Sand Point and Whittier. The area covers a wide area but one that’s sparsely populated.

Most residents who want to be vaccinated have already been, he said. One Sand Point teenager planned to get his first shot on Saturday — the day he turns 16.

The last adult in False Pass just got his vaccination on Thursday: He was holding out for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so the health organization literally dropped off a single syringe for him.

But seafood industry workers are also part of the community, whether or not they live there year-round, Mueller said. Protecting them helps protect the industry as well as permanent residents.

Trident, Silver Bay and Peter Pan have facilities in his region. Dutch Harbor falls outside it, but the tribal health organization partnered with the state and City of Unalaska and Iliuliuk Family & Health Services Clinic to conduct a mass clinic at a community gym.

“Dutch is outside our service area but they’re my neighbor. My folks fly through Dutch to get to Akutan,” Mueller explained. “This is the ticket out of the pandemic. And I want to get that ticket in everybody’s arm.”

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