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56 workers at Anchorage seafood plant test positive for COVID-19

The Copper River Seafoods plant on East First Avenue in Anchorage on Friday. (Anchorage Daily News photo)

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Fifty-six workers at the Copper River Seafoods processing plant in Anchorage have tested positive for COVID-19, marking the latest outbreak within Alaska’s seafood industry.

Nearly all the employees at the plant, which employs 134 workers, are residents of the Municipality of Anchorage, the Anchoage Health Department said in a statement Friday night. Another 30 test results had not yet been returned and 14 workers were not tested, according to the department. Testing was conducted from July 17 to 22.

The Anchorage Health Department and state Department of Health and Social Services’ Section of Epidemiology are working to conduct contact tracing. The two agencies are coordinating with Copper River Seafoods “to control this outbreak as quickly as possible and prevent further spread of the disease among co-workers, family members and the community,” the city health department said.

“This is a concerning situation for the people of Anchorage,” said Dr. Bruce Chandler, disease control and prevention medical officer with the city health department. “With so many workers now testing positive, it is likely that this outbreak has been in progress for some time and that transmission has already occurred among family, friends and others in the community.”

Rich Monroe, chief financial officer at Copper River Seafoods, said Saturday that the Anchorage plant outbreak was different from other recent seafood industry outbreaks as the illness came from the community into the plant.

“The Anchorage facility presents a special challenge because our work force is entirely local and our workers go back to the community each day where they are exposed to the rising community spread which Anchorage and Eagle River is currently suffering,” Copper River Seafoods said in an emailed statement Saturday evening.

Employees who tested positive were told to follow protocols for isolation established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city health department said, and employees with negative test results will stay in quarantine and undergo testing every three days until no more cases are identified. Health officials have instructed them and household members of those who test positive — all considered close contacts — to follow guidelines for quarantine and self-monitoring from the CDC, according to the city health department.

Copper River Seafoods closed the plant for disinfection and deep cleaning after the first case was confirmed, the health department said.

The Copper River Seafoods virus cases mark the third-largest outbreak in the state: An OBI Seafoods processing plant in Seward saw 98 cases among workers, and the factory trawler American Triumph identified 85 cases among crew after docking at Dutch Harbor. The fourth-largest outbreak involves 40 cases among workers at the Alaska Glacier Seafoods plant in Juneau.

Infected crew members from the factory trawler and employees at the Seward plant were brought to Anchorage for isolation and quarantine. At least one of roughly 175 seafood workers brought to Anchorage for isolation this week is sick enough to require hospitalization, Anchorage health officials said.

None of the 85 crew members on the American Seafoods vessel were Alaska residents. In Seward, of the 98 OBI Seafoods worker cases, 11 involve local residents who stayed there to isolate. Eight of the 40 cases at Juneau’s Alaska Glacier Seafoods plant involve Juneau residents.

This week, the state epidemiologist described a change in the makeup of seafood industry workers testing positive for COVID-19. Stopping transmission early on in the season was relatively easy, given that many of the workers flowing in from out of state were being tested before they arrived or started quarantining immediately upon arrival.

Now, virus cases within Alaska’s seafood industry increasingly involve local residents working at processing plants — individuals going back and forth from the community at large to closed work campuses, increasing the risk of the virus spreading from one sphere to another.

Copper River Seafoods said in its statement that it also has plants in Cordova, Naknek, Kotzebue and Togiak where they house and feed their employees and have been successful in keeping the virus at bay.

“Copper River Seafoods is proactively taking every step that it can in order to take on the challenge of operating a local food processing facility operated by local residents who return to their homes and family each day,” the company said.

The Copper River Seafoods plant on East First Avenue in Anchorage on Friday. (Anchorage Daily News photo)

Anchorage resident Sylvia Eschenlohr, 19, has worked as part of the quality control department at the plant since May 2019. She said she stopped going to work after her boss confirmed to her privately on Monday that there was a COVID-19 case at the plant.

Eschenlohr took a COVID-19 test on her own Tuesday. She said she wanted to get tested because part of her job involved scanning everyone’s forehead for a fever each day. Her test results were negative.

Eschenlohr ended up quitting on Saturday, she said, over safety concerns and lack of information from upper management.

“I decided that it wasn’t worth risking my health or my family’s health to continue working in there,” she said.

Eschenlohr said she was contacted by a representative from the company Saturday who asked her to get tested again. She said she told she them didn’t work there anymore, but was planning to get another test the next day.

Copper River Seafoods said it is working with state and local officials as they respond to the outbreak.

“We are consistently monitoring the wellbeing of employees who have either tested positive or been in close contact with those who have tested positive and making sure they have the resources they require,” the company said.

Copper River Seafoods is also telling employees about obligations for isolation and self-quarantine.

Anchorage health officials continue to urge the public to wear a face covering in public, keep a distance of 6 feet from people they don’t live with, regularly wash their hands, maintain a small social bubble and avoid big gatherings.

“Anyone who feels even mildly ill is encouraged to get tested,” the city health department said. “If you test positive, please contact your own close contacts if you can, to minimize the time those people might be out in the community, potentially exposing others.”

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