State says it will provide additional testing to communities ahead of fishing season

Commercial fishing in Alaska is a multi-billion dollar industry. (Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr)
Commercial fishing in Alaska is a multi-billion dollar industry. (Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr)

In an effort to address the deep concerns in coastal communities about outside workers and fishermen bringing COVID-19 to their regions, the state is working to support rural health organizations, as people travel to those areas for the fishing season. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the state is collaborating with federal agencies to secure additional testing for areas like Bristol Bay, where thousands of fishermen and processing workers travel to participate in the sockeye fishery — that includes providing several additional testing machines.

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“We are in the process of shipping those out to many of our rural locations right now to make sure that communities have that testing capacity there in location,” she said at a news conference Monday night.

Zink said the state is sending a Cepheid machine – which can analyze samples in 45 minutes – to Cordova, where the red salmon fishery is set to open this week. 

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In Bristol Bay, the City of Dillingham, as well as several tribes have asked the state to consider closing the fishery, citing the influx of outside workers and fishermen. In April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy released a series of guidelines for commercial fishermen and the state remains committed to keeping the fishery open.

Zink is one of several senior medical officials traveling to communities around the state this week, including the Bristol Bay region, where they plan to meet with community members, and visit seafood plants in three different locations – Dillingham, Naknek-King Salmon, and Egegik. Others include Dr. Robert Onders, the medical director of ANTHC, and DHSS Office of Public Health Director Heidi Hedberg.

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Dr. Alex Eastman, senior medical operations officer with the Department of Homeland Security, will also be part of the group. He said Monday that the department would be ready to respond to any requests by the state for assistance during the upcoming fishing season.

The Department of Public Safety said last week that 20% of the Alaska Wildlife Trooper force would be based in Bristol Bay this summer. In addition to responding to service and search and rescue operations, wildlife troopers are charged with educating fishing crews on how to follow the state’s health and safety laws. 

DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum said during Monday’s news conference that the increase in trooper presence is standard for the fishing season. 

RELATED: There are new health rules for fishermen arriving in Bristol Bay, but critics say there are loopholes

“Prior conversations we’ve had discussions about bringing in folks and other outside agencies to help with the locals in just managing the influx of individuals as they travel in, educate them on the quarantine principals that may be in specific regions, and also just to make sure that they’re doing everything they have agreed to in Health Mandate 17,” he said.  

That additional enforcement would be separate from the state troopers currently set to come to the region this summer. Still, according to the Department of Public Safety, troopers will “monitor and encourage all fishery participants to comply with all State of Alaska issued Health Mandates related to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

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