ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - An out-of-state seafood processor tested positive for COVID-19 in Dillingham on Friday while under a 14-day quarantine. The first positive COVID-19 case in the region is sparking calls for stricter screening measures as the Bristol Bay fishery prepares to open next month.
The Trident Seafoods worker was one of five processors who had flown to Dillingham to begin working for the season on a barge owned by Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. The seafood processor was being quarantined inside the Trident Seafoods’ offices when they tested positive for COVID-19.
The seafood processor was asymptomatic and was flown by charter plane to Anchorage on Saturday. In Anchorage, they will undergo further quarantine measures until they test negative for COVID-19.
The other four Trident Seafoods workers who tested negative for COVID-19 will now begin another 14-day quarantine period in Dillingham.
“While this is an unfortunate event, what happened at Dillingham, we are pleased that our strict quarantining and testing protocols prevented this individual from interacting with the community,” said Shannon Carroll, the associate director of public policy for Trident Seafoods.
As of Sunday, ten nonresidents had tested positive for COVID-19 in Alaska, including five seafood workers. The news of a positive COVID-19 case in Dillingham caused anxiety in the region.
“Needless to say, it was a real gut punch,” said Norman Van Vactor, the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. “We were wondering when the first case would pop up, now it has.”
Trident Seafoods will now have its Dillingham-based workers quarantined in Anchorage for two weeks before being tested for COVID-19. Once cleared, the workers would then be able to fly on a private charter plane out to Bristol Bay.
"They will now be treated pretty much similar to all of our other employees who come from out of state, we’ll be quarantining and testing them in Anchorage and then flying them to Dillingham," Carroll said.
Van Vactor appreciates the change but says the Bristol Bay region needs more help. “We continue to look for better guidelines and better support from the State of Alaska on what can and can’t be done out here,” he said.
There are only two critical care hospital beds in Dillingham and local governments don’t have the ability to test for COVID-19 widely.
The United Tribes of Bristol Bay is asking that the state mandate that all seafood workers pre-quarantine before coming into the region. It’s also asking for more help in pre-testing for the coronavirus.
Eleven seafood processors have formulated plans with state officials for how they will operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The concern for Van Vactor is whether individual fishermen arriving into Bristol Bay will obey state and local ordinances requiring that they isolate for two weeks.
The City of Dillingham cannot enforce quarantine measures locally, Van Vactor said. He explained without the ability to enforce quarantine policies that “it’s really up to the individual fisherman to do what they think is right.”
On Friday, the State of Alaska amended some of its mandates for commercial fisheries and interstate travel. Those mandates defined possible options and safe operations for onshore fisheries as well fish processing industries.
“That being said, the state has been, and will continue to constantly evaluate all aspects of the COVID-19 health mandates, along with having conversations with communities about the processes put in place,” said Clinton Bennett, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services. “If any group wants to have a discussion about health mandates and how they affect their community our door is always open for those discussions and we’ve made that known since the beginning of this pandemic.”
On Monday, the challenges for Bristol Bay look likely to increase. Alaska Airlines will begin regular air service into Dillingham and King Salmon, bringing an influx of workers from Outside.
Those will also be the first commercial passenger flights arriving into Bristol Bay for weeks. “We’ve actually benefited from the isolation that came upon our region from the collapse and failure of RavnAir,” Van Vactor said.
In early-April, Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby and First Chief of the Curyang Tribal Council Thomas Tilden wrote to the governor, asking that he consider closing the fishery to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak. Van Vactor said it was possible those calls would grow louder with a positive case found in Bristol Bay.
“I don’t think one case should dictate the outcome,” he said. “But I think what it does do is validate the concern of some of these folks.”
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