A COVID-19 outbreak in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova among dozens of seafood workers and community members has shuttered a processing plant and triggered a mask mandate for city workers.
The city with just over 2,800 residents is reporting almost 60 active cases, including workers at the Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods plant, temporarily shut down during a lucrative salmon fishing opener this week.
City leaders say Cordova’s example is an unfortunate lesson in the latest chapter of coronavirus, in which an infectious new variant is preying on people who choose not to get vaccinated.
“I think the piece most people aren’t considering is this is not the same virus,” said city manager Helen Howarth. “It’s the same named virus on one level but it is not the same virus. And we all need to be very careful. It’s coming back at you again.”
The city implemented a mask mandate for employees this week.
Several seafood plants in Cordova employ hundreds of people. The new cases prompted fish processors in town to shift back to a closed campus for non-resident workers.
The outbreak did not begin at the Alaska Wild Seafoods plant but was evidently spread to employees through local contact, according to a city statement.
All Alaska Wild Seafoods workers quarantine for two weeks if they come from outside the community, officials say. But unlike others in town, the plant is not requiring workers to get vaccinated.
Thirty-five of the plant’s 45 employees are fully vaccinated, according to information provided Thursday by Alaska Wild Seafoods president and CEO Camtu Ho.
“We cannot push the vaccine 100%,” Ho said. “You cannot do anything if they say no, or please, I don’t want to do vaccination. We cannot do it that way.”
Nearly half of the vaccinated workers tested positive for the virus, she said, along with additional unvaccinated workers. Most had few if any symptoms. Only one worker sought medical care, at her urging, because he’s older.
Her workers are paying the price for people in the community who choose not to wear masks or follow other protocols, leading to community spread, Ho said. “It’s really hard for us.”
Cordova is one of several areas in the state where COVID-19 cases are climbing. State health officials link the increase in cases to the more transmissible delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Hospitalizations are increasing, too, from 10 or 15 patients at one time around the state last month to 72 as of Thursday, state data shows. Multiple hospitals in Anchorage were diverting patients last weekend due to high volumes of both COVID and non-COVID patients.
The state reported “notable” case increases in Anchorage, Sitka, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Chugach Census Area, Juneau, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Kodiak Island Borough.
The return of the virus in Cordova took people by surprise, Howarth said. Vaccinated people who contract it don’t usually know they’ve got COVID-19 — health experts say the vaccines minimize the severity of most illness — but they can spread it. Unvaccinated people started showing up at the medical center.
“By the time people started presenting with symptoms, obviously, it had taken off,” she said.
As of Thursday, there were 58 people with active COVID-19 infections in town, down from 70 earlier in the week, according to the city’s dashboard.
Last summer at this time, before vaccine became available, Alaska’s waterfront communities weathered the coronavirus pandemic with closed campuses at seafood processing plants and strict policies for workers. Still, the virus crept in. Some of the state’s largest outbreaks centered on seafood processing, especially as community spread grew, infecting residents who worked in the plants.
This summer, with broad vaccine availability, was supposed to be different. Alaska officials announced in February they would give seafood industry workers from other states equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, a policy shift made in the aftermath of the outbreaks that flared in plants and offshore processing ships.
The plants that vaccinated all of their employees are doing fine, Howarth said. “The plant that didn’t have 100% vaccinated is not doing well.”
All of the employees at Trident Seafoods, which hires up to 500 people at two Cordova plants, are vaccinated, according to Trident spokesman Shannon Carroll. The company requires it.
OBI Seafoods, with 223 employees, also has a 100% vaccination rate at the Cordova plant, according to an email from spokeswoman Julianne Curry.
Ho said her workers at Alaska Wild Seafoods feel well enough that they keep calling, asking when they can come back. She said the plant hopes to reopen next week.
“We are losing money ... but we are caught,” she said. “We want to make sure we do the right thing.”