Seafood companies kept COVID-19 from infecting Alaskans. Now they’re trying to keep the virus out of their plants.

Seafood processors, like the ones pictured here at an OBI Seafoods plant in Kodiak, face elevated risk of catching COVID-19 because of their busy work environment. (Eric Keto/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

This spring, as Alaska hunkered down and kept COVID-19 rates low, residents of the state’s fishing towns raised strong objections to the arrival of thousands of fishermen and seasonal plant workers, fearful that the visitors could bring the virus with them.

Strict state and local mandates, plus tight restrictions imposed by seafood companies, ended up stopping those visitors from spreading the virus; the Bristol Bay Borough, Alaska’s salmon hub, had just one resident case of the virus through Monday.

And now, as infection rates rise among the Alaska public, the dynamic has flipped: It’s the seafood companies that have to protect their workers from Alaska residents.

Many of Alaska’s processing plants, particularly in Bristol Bay, are staffed exclusively by seasonal workers who live on company property. And this year, companies operating in the region have avoided major outbreaks by barring workers from leaving their property.

Alaska’s fishing communities have plans to contain COVID-19. Now they’ll be put to the test.

But other plants’ workforces are mixed, particularly in communities like Kodiak and in Southeast Alaska: Seasonal employees have been restricted to company property, but they work with resident employees who return home at the end of each day.

Those residents might still have close contact with family members or friends, exposing themselves to a deadly virus that, because of its ability to be transmitted before a person shows symptoms, can be brought back into a plant undetected.

That’s what officials say happened at Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Juneau. A resident worker was infected by COVID-19 outside the plant, then brought the virus in and 39 other workers caught it. In a phone interview, Vice President Jim Erickson stressed that the source of the outbreak was not seasonal employees.

“We successfully brought in between 100 and 110 people from out-of-state, COVID-free. Everybody passed two rounds of negative tests, plus quarantine,” Erickson said. “We did not bring the COVID in with out-of-state workers. Unfortunately, it was transferred to us by a Juneau resident that lives outside of company housing.”

Read full coverage of COVID-19 from Alaska Public Media

If COVID-19 does make it into a processing plant, it can spread quickly there, given the busy factory environment and the potential for close contact between workers. Alaska processing companies say they’ve tried to reduce risk using daily symptom checks for employees, protective equipment and barriers installed in their plants, but two other major outbreaks have hit the industry in the past week.

One, with 96 cases, hit a plant this week in Seward that employs a mix of resident and seasonal workers, although authorities have not yet described the source of those infections. A third outbreak is aboard a massive Bering Sea trawler with a processing plant onboard.

Outbreak at Seward salmon processing plant grows to 96, state says

Across Alaska’s fishing communities, local and industry leaders agree that the threat from the virus has evolved — from incoming seasonal workers at the start of the fishing season to resident workers now. And the risk from those resident workers has steadily increased as infection rates among the general public rose quickly in recent weeks.

“At the time that we were bringing workers into Alaska to support these fisheries, the virus was not circulating in a lot of smaller Alaska communities,” said Nicole Kimball, vice president of Alaskan operations for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “Now it is circulating higher in those communities, so that is a bigger challenge — and I think it’s the main challenge we have today in seafood processing.”

The shift became clear to Dr. Hannah Sanders in a recent phone call.

Sanders, chief executive of the hospital in the Prince William Sound fishing town of Cordova, had spent much of the spring working to make sure that COVID-19 wasn’t introduced into her community by seasonal workers.

Like many other Cordova residents, Sanders had objected to companies’ plans to import their workforce this year, and she even wrote a letter to the town’s mayor saying that there was no way to do so without “significant morbidity and mortality” among residents.

But two months into the season, no one has died or even been hospitalized with the virus in Cordova. And recently, Sanders found herself on the phone being asked whether her hospital could provide adequate protection from COVID-19 for a plant worker who needed an X-ray.

“It was hard. I had to kind of take a deep breath and not take offense to it. Because I’d been working so hard to keep them safe,” she said. “But I realized that we really have developed a symbiotic relationship.”

Companies, health-care providers and local leaders all acknowledge the increased risk posed by resident workers, and some are taking specific steps to manage it.

In Cordova, a few workers from each shift at each plant are being randomly tested each week, with the hope of catching a quietly-developing outbreak before it gets too large, Sanders said. And for processors that have resident workers coming and going each day, all of those employees are being tested on a monthly basis.

In Kodiak, Trident Seafoods has adopted a management plan that’s tied to the number of active cases in the community. If infections hit a certain level, essential resident employees may be asked to move into bunkhouses on company property.

And in the Southeast fishing town of Petersburg, the local borough is spending $178,000 in federal COVID-19 relief money on regular testing of resident processing plant workers.

But such measures haven’t been adopted or mandated statewide.

“Regularly testing all workers every couple weeks — that takes a lot of tests,” said Kimball, with the processors association. “That’s the challenge: ensuring we have enough testing supplies, specifically in communities that have a high resident workforce, where that sustained testing is going to be more and more important.”

Adelyn Baxter contributed reporting from KTOO in Juneau.

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