Dillingham has its first case of COVID-19.
According to state data, the person is an out-of-state resident who works in the seafood industry. It’s the ninth case of an out-of-state resident testing positive for the disease, and it’s the fourth instance of someone testing positive who works in that industry.
The state said in a news release that the individual is a seasonal worker for Trident Seafoods. Trident is arranging for that worker to leave the community today. That person is asymptomatic, doing well and does not require hospitalization.
Trident doesn’t have processing facilities in Dillingham; it operates a barge for tender and vessel support in partnership with the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. Five workers arrived via a Lake Clark air flight May 1, and were tested at the end of their quarantine.
“So we’re obviously really disappointed in the news. This wasn’t, obviously, intended by any means. But we never expected that we’d be able to prevent all of the asymptomatic employees from entering. So I think this really just highlights the importance of having a really strong quarantine protocol, and then also testing,” said Shannon Carroll, the associate director of public policy for Trident Seafoods.
Trident operates in 10 communities around the state. After the positive test, the company is changing the way it operates.
“Now, given that there’s been some revised local ordinances in Dillingham and state health mandates, all future employees that will be coming into Dillingham will be quarantined and tested in Anchorage, and then have secured transport to Dillingham,” Carroll said.
The other workers quarantining at the location tested negative, and will now quarantine for another 14 days because they were in close contact with the infected person. During that time, they will be observed by public health nurses.
To get out of quarantine they will need to satisfy the City of Dillingham’s ordinances and, according to Trident, receive a minimum of two negative tests, including one at the end of the quarantine period.
Public health nurses have completed a contact investigation and report that no one at that quarantine site had any outside contacts.
In a community meeting on Saturday, Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby said that the response to this case demonstrates that Trident’s health protocols, as well as the local ordinances and state mandates, are effective.
“We’ve been working with partners, the state and tribal partners, federal and health care partners, to ensure that the plans we have in place work well and that they protect everyone. The discovery of this positive case, while they were still in quarantine, is just an indication of how our plan is working,” she said.
“They haven’t exposed the community because they haven’t been out in the community,” public health nurse Gina Carpenter said in the state’s news release. “This shows the benefit of these rules. These workers did everything right and followed the quarantine and testing requirements laid out in Trident’s industry plan.”
During the summer, processors bring in thousands of employees, while thousands of independent fishermen come to the region as well. The off-season regional population is around 6,700, which is spread out through many small communities. During the fishing season the population balloons up to nearly 22,000.
In Bristol Bay, the City of Dillingham, as well as several tribes and the regional health corporation, have asked the state to consider closing the fishery, citing the influx of outside workers and fishermen. In April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy released a series of guidelines for commercial fishermen and the state remains committed to keeping the fishery open.
The City of Dillingham passed several ordinances at recent meetings extending its travel permit and quarantine requirements for incoming visitors. Effective May 22, it is requiring testing for people quarantining in Dillingham in order for them to come out of quarantine.
There are two places to get tested for COVID-19 in Dillingham. Free testing is available at a Capstone Clinic center at the Dillingham harbor. That was set up through a partnership between the Dillingham Public Health Center, Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, the City of Dillingham and Capstone Clinic. Dr. Cathy Hyndman, clinical director of BBAHC, said harbor’s testing center is for people who aren’t experiencing symptoms but might have been exposed.
People who are experiencing symptoms should call the hospital at (907) 842-9440 to set up an appointment. Once at the hospital a nurse will come to the car and administer an Abbot ID Now swab test.
Dillingham does not currently have testing set up at its airport. City Manager Tod Larson said that was partly because it would create crowding at the terminal.
“It takes quite a bit to put everything together. We have to kinda get a semi-windproof area that has to be built with a lab, fridge, freezer, that kind of stuff,” Larson said.
During the Saturday meeting, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink,said the state is working with the city and other local entities to minimize the risk to the community.
“One is to track the case and to make sure that we are looking at all the contacts, any possible exposure, and be able to try to break any chain of spread,” she said.
The case was announced two days after a delegation of state and federal officials visited four communities in Bristol Bay, including Dillingham. The group toured health facilities and seafood processing plants, and heard from community leaders about concerns and support ahead of the fishing season.
The Dillingham police force is currently making trips to the airport to check on compliance with state and local laws, according to Mayor Ruby, who said that the city requested additional assistance from the state during the visit.
“We’ll be following up next week to try to get more bodies that would help us with security, so that we can be in more places at once to enforce,” she said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.