Seattle-based Trident Seafoods is shutting down its largest Alaskan seafood factory for three weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak, a tough move that points to a new coronavirus assault on the ranks of workers in a key part of the country’s food processing industry.
Trident is suspending operations at its Akutan plant just at the start of the main winter harvests of pollock – the largest single-species seafood crop in North America – as well as cod and crab. In Akutan, some 700 employees have stopped work as part of a new round of tests, and a fleet of boats that would normally deliver their catch is now moored at docks.
“We know COVID-19 is on the site now, and until we test everyone, we won’t know how widespread it is,” said Stefanie Moreland, vice president of Trident. “This is the best way to contain the spread of the virus. “
Earlier this month, Unisea, another major processor based on Unalaska Island, shut down due to an outbreak and is conducting mass testing of its workforce. The Seattle-based Ocean Peace, a factory trawler that catches cod and other bottom-living fish, also has an outbreak that forced the vessel to leave the Unalaska port of Dutch Harbor and head for to south-central Alaska to self-quarantine.
The outbreaks come at a time when North Pacific seafood industry officials – and their medical consultants – have urged state public health officials to make vaccines available to processing workers as well as fishing crews. They say they have gone to considerable effort through quarantines, masks and social distancing to curb the virus. But there is an urgent need to provide vaccine protection for those workers, many of whom are minorities, may live ashore in multigenerational families and are at high risk if they were to contract the virus from distant ships or factories.
“We did everything we could. But there is so much community out there, ”said Dr. Ann Jarris, MD, CEO of Discovery Health, who has been a consultant for Trident.
Jarris said officials in the states of Alaska and Washington are working to support the seafood industry under the constraints they operate under.
Moreland of Trident said the Akutan facility, which operates as a closed campus with dormitories, currently has some 700 employees. The plant is expected to increase to 1,400 workers to process the winter harvest, but Trident is currently reluctant to send additional workers there.
The outbreak was detected earlier this month when four employees, all of whom were roommates, tested positive. They had all undergone a 14-day quarantine and tested negative for the virus before returning to work in Akutan.
“Our protocol review so far has shown that our robust quarantine protocols have been closely followed and successful,” said Trident CEO Joe Bundrant. “We haven’t determined how the virus entered Akutan, but we are investigating any potential loopholes. This serious action to stop operations is necessary to allow us to do everything possible to provide a safe working environment and to resume all operations as quickly as possible. “