Activity is ramping up in Petersburg harbors with just a few weeks before the start of some commercial salmon and crab fisheries in the region. Seafood processing companies bringing seasonal workers to town this summer have outlined their safety plans for the coronavirus. They intend to quarantine and isolate their workforce to protect employees and the community from a potential outbreak.
The community’s two larger processing plants run by Icicle Seafoods and Trident Seafoods bring hundreds of workers into town for the summer months. Both companies plan to have a closed campus for employees who live on-site, while community members who work there will be coming and going from those plants.
“Icicle facilities are operating as closed campuses this year,” said Icicle Seafoods’ Julianne Curry. “Employees that live on the property have to remain on property at all times except for designated personnel that are conducting business critical operations off-site. We’ve developed a quarantine plan for our incoming employees although no additional employees are scheduled to arrive until closer to the summer processing season.”
Icicle expects a total of about 380 workers this season, including seasonal workers and the 93 employees who live in Petersburg. Curry said all employees traveling into Alaska are now being tested in Seattle before they come here and workers will be quarantined when they arrive. Beyond that, the company plans regular screening and temperature checks. Icicle has room for isolating sick employees. Curry said an employee needing hospital care would likely be medevaced out of Petersburg. Icicle has also added security on-site and is taking other measures to limit disease spread.
“We’re taking all the necessary steps to limit in-person interaction whenever possible, including with the office, the docks, the plant workers and our fishermen,” Curry said. “We’re actively working with our fishermen to keep them informed so they can partner in our efforts to protect our Petersburg home and the situation’s very fluid. So we incorporate new information into our plans and procedures every single day.”
Both Icicle and Trident Seafoods submitted workforce protection plans to state and borough governments. Trident spokesperson Shannon Carroll said that company planned to bring the bulk of its seasonal workers to Petersburg in late May. He said quarantine is the biggest tool for limiting COVID spread.
“So we have a 14-day quarantine in Petersburg at a local hote,” Carroll said. “That’s a monitored quarantine to make sure that it’s adhered to. And then we do testing in partnership with the local hospital near the end of the quarantine and obviously require a negative test result in order to go to work.”
Carroll and Curry answered questions during a radio call in show in mid-May.
Trident also plans a closed campus for non-resident workers and daily health and temperature screenings. Carroll pointed out that the company has been processing fish in other parts of Alaska since the beginning of the year and at its plants in the lower 48 states.
“We’re not trying to take a victory lap by any means but we feel pretty confident the protocols we have in place are really rigorous and up to the best practices or exceed them so we do feel confident going into the summer,” Carroll said.
The borough’s incident commander Karl Hagerman has reviewed the companies’ plans and is supportive.
“Time will tell, the rubber meets the road when we start implementing the plans and what I’m seeing and hearing from them is that they’re very committed to upholding those plans and we need that to happen for Petersburg to have a successful summer,” Hagerman said.
State officials say they’ve learned from outbreaks in meat packing plants in other parts of the country and point to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on limiting COVID spread in those facilities. In mid-May, the state issued enhanced protective measures for seafood processing workers. Those include three options for completing quarantine either before, during or after travel into the state.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, answered questions from Petersburg health officials about seasonal workers in May.
“Whenever we have more people, whenever we have more travel and whenever we have people working or living in tight or close quarters we expect more cases,” Zink said. “And the fishing industry fits many of those criteria. So we’ve been working hard with our federal partners as well as our industry partners to try and mitigate that risk.”
The question and answer session was a video-conference through Alaska Project Echo, a network for information sharing.
Zink said the state is encouraging companies to quarantine their work force outside of Alaska and to test before those workers travel here.
“Many of them are doing that and they are getting positives in the lower 48 and they have been sharing that with the other industry partners,” she said. “So those aren’t showing up in our numbers, those aren’t showing up in our press conferences because they’re not Alaskan numbers but it’s part of the work that’s being done behind the scenes.”
The state is also trying to do more testing of those workers in larger urban areas instead of in smaller rural communities because of testing supplies. A testing facility was started in the Anchorage airport in May y.
Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter has been trying to get the message out about the need for more testing supplies here.
“We just don’t have the supplies and swabs and cartridges, reagents, etc. to be able to provide a higher level of testing, although we’d love to do that. We really want to do that,” Hofstetter said.
He’d like to expand asymptomatic testing to first responders and seafood workers if more supplies become available. Other communities are starting to do more widespread testing as supplies allow. And some of that testing is catching positive cases for incoming workers and others.
State public health officials expect to see an overall increase in case counts as restrictions on businesses and daily life are eased and removed. They also told Petersburg officials that restrictions could return in response to local outbreaks.