Trident Seafoods had only one health worker on duty at its huge Akutan plant when COVID-19 broke out

The urgent job offer from a company hired to provide medical care at the Trident Seafoods factory in the small village of Akutan, Alaska, on a hard-to-reach island, won over the nature lover:

“Are you interested in an ADVENTURE in Alaska? Seasonal positions available! If you are dynamic, professional and interested in a remote environment, this might be the job for you!

In reality, the job was to serve as a nurse practitioner for the largest seafood processing facility in North America, in slow motion since mid-January amid a coronavirus outbreak that has infected nearly half of its 700 workers. Trident officials say they have nothing to do with the announcement.

As of Tuesday, 307 of 706 workers at the Aleutian Islands plant had tested positive for COVID-19, Trident officials said. They declined to say how many hospitalizations have required this week. At least three infected employees required medical evacuations last month.

An employee died at the plant last weekend, Trident confirmed on Tuesday. No additional information was available.

[Trident Seafoods reports 266 total virus cases at Aleutian plant plus small outbreak on vessel in Dutch Harbor]

As of Tuesday, 206 of the remaining 554 workers at the plant had COVID-19, according to Trident spokesperson Shannon Carroll. The company has also transferred around 150 ‘high-risk’ workers – both positive and negative for the virus – to a hotel in Anchorage, as they have health issues that make them more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID- 19.

Daily test positivity rates at the plant fell over the past week to a low of around 1% on Wednesday, according to Stefanie Moreland, Trident’s vice president of government relations.

The company says it is working on plans for employees who have completed isolation and quarantine to return to work, and is arranging accommodation, meals and supervision for employees who wish to leave.

The epidemic now appears to be under control.

But several people affiliated with the factory who spoke to the Daily News, but didn’t want their names used because they didn’t want to put their jobs at risk, described a lack of broad testing that allowed infections to occur. spread rapidly before the first cases are discovered in mid-January. They also say the outbreak immediately overwhelmed the sole health care provider at the plant’s medical clinic – a reality Trident also acknowledges.

As the first cases surfaced, a single registered nurse practitioner provided medical care at a facility with more than 700 workers, with remote physician assistance. This level of staffing had served the company fairly well since the plant began operating in the 1980s.

The sudden rush of COVID-positive workers quickly became more than one person could handle.

• • •

The Akutan plant is a massive facility that can process 3 million pounds of raw fish per day. At full capacity, the number of employees housed by the company reaches 1,400, a diverse workforce that includes people from countries such as the Philippines, Ukraine and Somalia.

The plant is a hub for processing pollock, crab and Bering Sea cod harvests. The crab and cod seasons were already underway when Trident announced the closure. Pollock season began on January 20. Pollock, a small, white fish found in abundance in the Bering, is part of a multibillion-dollar industry that produces everything from fish fingers to sushi.

Operating a factory in remote conditions on a weather-prone island is tough enough. Operating once COVID-19 has made its way into tight spaces and cramped working conditions with limited medical facilities has become an almost unprecedented challenge.

Typically, seafood industry insiders praise Trident as the gold standard for COVID-19 protocols in place to protect coastal communities. The industry has protocols in place to deal with outbreaks, but sometimes it takes time, said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats.

“Look at the millions of dollars Trident Seafoods is spending right now,” Paine said. “They pay their crews. They carry them if they have to be in Anchorage. … They are closed.

When the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in mid-January, the factory rushed to bring in enough test supplies as weather conditions delayed flights. Eastern Aleutian tribes provided the first kits, state officials said. Eventually, more supplies arrived.

People at the factory say it quickly became apparent that more people were showing symptoms of COVID-19 than people being tested.

The first COVID-19 infection was reported on January 17 in a worker evacuated with a separate health problem. Three roommates tested positive. One of them was working in the kitchen, potentially infecting many more.

By this time, the virus was already accelerating in the plant.

• • •

Trident now has six graduate nurse practitioners and an assistant working at the plant’s medical clinic, company officials say. The clinic must be self-sufficient as there is no hospital for hundreds of kilometers and just a small clinic in the village itself.

“When the virus was first detected, we had a clinic capable of meeting routine medical needs in Akutan. We were also relying on our telemedicine provider, ”Carroll company spokesperson said in an email. “Shortly after the first case was detected, we dramatically increased the number of medical staff on site.”

The company is maintaining higher levels of medical care for the near future, he said. Last month, Trident carried additional medical supplies such as ventilators and breathing apparatus.

Employees are checked twice a day and checked by medical staff.

The company tests negative workers daily using a strategy approved by the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, Carroll said.

“Our results indicate that our quarantine and isolation protocols control the spread of the virus,” he said.

• • •

It is still not clear exactly how the virus entered the plant.

The Akutan factory, about half a mile from the small village of about 100 residents, operates as a closed campus. Some sort of breach is likely to have occurred in the protocols the company says it has demanded since March: a mandatory 14-day supervised quarantine at an Anchorage hotel, pre-arrival testing, chartered trip to Akutan and strict controls on who could enter or leave the establishment.

These protocols were necessary, according to Trident officials, because testing resources were not available when the season began last year. This year, materials have also been severely limited with additional supplies made available recently.

Those still at the factory are paid to stay in quarantine – 40 hours a week, with a bonus of $ 1,000 – and only come from their rooms to the kitchen or for smoke breaks. Monitors make sure workers stay 6 feet from each other, sanitize their hands and wear masks, according to a January letter to factory workers provided by a family member.

“Although these measures are very strict, your cooperation will help all of us contain the virus and get back to work as soon as possible,” said the letter from plant manager Dave Abbasian. “Failure to follow protocols could delay deadlines for all of us. “

On January 21, Trident closed for three weeks to allow the outbreak to subside. Another large factory in the Aleutians with a major COVID-19 outbreak – UniSea in Unalaska – reopened on Sunday for pollock and crab processing, according to company president Tom Enlow. The facility remains closed, which means all employees must stay in accommodation when not working or eating.

Since the start of the year, UniSea has had 80 employees tested positive for COVID-19, including 21 captured during quarantine, Enlow said. Of these, half remain contagious and isolated. None have had more than mild symptoms and most have or have had no symptoms, he said.

Trident does not yet know exactly when the Akutan plant will resume processing.

The company uses factories in St. Paul, Kodiak and Sand Point, as well as the 356-foot Independence floating processor to keep seafood operations in motion and make markets available to fishermen, officials said Wednesday.

“We will open the facility when the risk of viruses is eliminated,” Carroll said.

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Tanya S. Norvell