A COVID-19 outbreak at the Trident Seafoods plant in the tiny, remote community of Akutan now encompasses 135 workers including several sick enough to require medevacs to Anchorage.
The plant, North America’s largest, right now has about 700 workers quarantined on an island in the Bering Sea with the nearest hospital hundreds of miles away. Trident is taking the unusual step of stockpiling medical supplies including ventilators in case weather grounds air ambulances.
Two COVID-positive workers were sick enough to get flown Monday to Anchorage for hospitalization, according to state health officials. Another worker with breathing problems was medevaced earlier.
“We arranged Coast Guard-assisted evacuations yesterday for two employees whose condition was quickly worsening,” Trident spokeswoman Stefanie Moreland said in a statement Tuesday. “We now have more private-sector resources lined up in case further emergency evacuations are needed and weather permits.”
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said Tuesday that 135 out of 307 employees tested so far came back positive for COVID-19.
Five workers have been medevaced in recent days, not all for virus-related problems, including the two COVID-19 patients flown out Monday, officials say. Three others have been released and are staying in Anchorage.
As a precaution, Trident sent out ventilators, oxygen and CPAP breathing machines, spokesman Shannon Carroll said Tuesday. “No one is on ventilators or oxygen currently.”
Trident is also taking the unusual step of sending off-island employees with underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk of more severe infections if they get the virus. The company is sending those employees by boat to Unalaska about 35 miles away where they are being flown to quarantine in Anchorage.
Fifteen had left or were departing by mid-day Tuesday, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.
Such outbreaks can take weeks to play out, state health officials say.
The Trident plant sits about a half mile from Akutan but operates as a closed campus, a policy that started in March when the pandemic began. The workforce dwarfs the community’s population of about 100. Workers complete a 14-day quarantine before getting on the island.
It’s unclear how the virus got into the facility.
The plant is a processing hub for Bering Sea harvests of pollock, crab and cod. The workforce is expected to swell to 1,400 in the weeks ahead, provided normal operations resume. The company last week said it opted to hold about 365 workers in Anchorage once their quarantine ended.
Trident officials say the number of positive cases out of total tests is relatively high for now, partly because they tested high-risk populations and known close contacts of infected workers first. The company won’t report the final rate of positive test until it has rapid results from mosts employees.
The outbreak was first discovered on Jan. 17 when a plant worker with breathing problems was tested prior to the Coast Guard flight out. Three of their roommates tested positive that day.
More testing is continuing, Trident officials said. Weather delays last week initially slowed that process but supplies and additional medical professionals are now on site.
A medical team is conducting rapid antigen tests for quick results and is also collecting samples for PCR tests, which detect the virus’ genetic material and are slower but more accurate, to be shipped to a lab outside of the region, the company said.
Trident is paying the Akutan employees during the shutdown, officials said.
“We’re providing safe activities, wellness support, WIFI data cards for downloading books, magazines and other entertainment, and are providing a safe checkout and return process for on-site games and movies,” Moreland said. “We’re grateful for our people’s strength and resilience in a challenging situation.”
The Daily News has been unable to reach workers at the plant.
The Trident outbreak is the third in a seafood processing plant in the Aleutian Islands, about a week into the billion-dollar Bering Sea pollock fishery. Crab and cod seasons were underway. The pollock season began Jan. 20.
Pollock, a small white-fleshed fish found in abundance in the Bering, is part of a multi-billion-dollar industry that churns out everything from fish sticks to sushi.
Westward Seafoods, owner of Alyeska Seafoods Inc. in Unalaska, on Friday became the third Aleutian plant to temporarily shut down. The plant halted production based on a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases identified during surveillance testing of workers at the Alyeska plant, according to a city update.
Alyeska “has enacted their plans for responding to positive cases identified within their workforce” which includes isolating people who test positive, helping with contact tracing, quarantining people found to be close contacts of infected workers and conducting more testing.
A message left at the company’s Seattle headquarters Tuesday was not returned.
An outbreak at another Unalaska plant, operated by UniSea, shut down earlier though officials have said they hoped to reopen by this weekend. A UniSea representative did not return a request for information Tuesday about the reopening schedule.
As of Monday, 30 of the 32 active cases in Unalaska were industry-related, according to the city website. Five new industry cases were reported that day. Overall, that’s a decline from the 50 active industry cases reported Friday.
The sudden plant shut down left some fishermen stuck at the docks with holds full of fish, according to a report by Alaska Public Media.
Last year’s crab, cod and pollock seasons didn’t trigger any major outbreaks. That’s because plants already had workers contained on site when the pandemic surfaced in Alaska. This year, workers traveled from the Lower 48, where transmission is ongoing. Many companies also operate open campus facilities in Alaskan communities with high rates of COVID-19 spread.
The situation is bad but not as bad as it could be, at least for now, industry observers say. Unlike derby-style salmon fisheries, pollock is managed on a quota basis in which shares are assigned to cooperatives that decide when they want to harvest their fish.
The growing concern, however, is for continued outbreaks that push plant closures for weeks, deeper into the current fishing season that runs into April.
“We have a great team focused on making sure we’re preventing further spread of the virus while we continue to assess each individual employee’s health, care for the sick and understand who has already been infected,” Trident CEO Joe Bundrant said in Tuesday’s statement. “We will take every step possible to ensure our people and plant are safe before restarting production.”
— Reporter Annie Berman contributed to this story.