Ferry Tustumena crew member tests positive for COVID-19, passengers quarantined

The M/V Tustumena pulls away from Kodiak on Jan. 11, 2020, beginning a ferry service gap of more than three months. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

The first ferry of the season to Unalaska, brought a case of COVID-19 to the community. The ferry Tustumena sailings have been canceled after a crew member tested positive for the virus on Saturday.

The ship will now be sailing back to Homer from Unalaska on Sunday. It will not make any stops.

That’s according to state Department of Transportation officials that said a crew member developed mild symptoms including a runny nose, cough, and body aches, but they did not have a fever during the voyage along the Aleutian Chain.

The employee is in isolation on the ferry and did not disembark the vessel, but did have contact with passengers and crew before arriving in Unalaska.

“This is not considered a community case. This is a travel-related case,” said Unalaska City Manager Erin Reinders. “It was an individual who was an employee of the Alaska Marine Highway System. I don’t know a lot of the details behind it, but what we do know is that this individual was symptomatic, did not leave the room that they were in, was tested here locally, and that test came back positive.”

The Department of Health and Social Services has begun contact tracing and will contact people who may have had interactions with the crew member.

A statement from the Department of Transportation says there are 35 crew members on the Tustumena. It says 16 close contacts — all crew members — have been identified and are quarantined on board the ship. It also says all crew stayed on board while docked in Unalaska and that no passengers have been identified as close contacts.

Dutch Harbor Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin said 21 passengers got off the ferry in Unalaska. She said all passengers were directed to follow the city’s protocol to self quarantine for 14-days upon arrival.

The ferry was on its first trip after returning to service on June 2.  It left Homer and visited the communities of Seldovia, Kodiak, Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, Akutan. DOT did not say which of those communities received passengers.

Neither the city nor state has said how many passengers had boarded the Tustumena in Unalaska on Saturday before being informed that the sailing had been canceled. DOT says the infected crew member did not have contact with any of these passengers.

McLaughlin said those passengers should take precautions.

“The recommendation for the passengers that were trying to leave on Unalaska/Dutch Harbor today, was to get off the ferry, go home, shower, and self-quarantine,” said McLaughlin. “The state is working on various options for them to continue to get from point A to point B.”

Melanee Tiura, chief executive of Iliuliuk Family Health Services in Unalaska, said the health clinic’s staff have been informed of the situation.

“We are all concerned with the possible risks present in this scenario,” said Tiura. “If there is good news so far, it is that the most recent information from the state indicates that there was limited direct exposure to the passengers, both those who disembarked today and those who had briefly boarded.”

The city has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anybody traveling to the island, whether by air or sea, with the exception of AMHS “day travelers” during their stopover in Unalaska.

State officials said the symptomatic crew member was tested at 5 p.m. Saturday. The positive result was returned an hour later. Unalaska’s local medical provider said it wasn’t part of that decision chain that allowed passengers to board with a potential coronavirus case on board.

“We, at the clinic, would like to make sure the community knows that we were not involved in any decisions that led to community members boarding the ferry with a symptomatic individual on board,” said Tiura. “We are here to care for patients and to help to keep Unalaska safe.”

Unalaska has had three cases of COVID-19, all among seafood workers.

Officials said there is no known community spread in Unalaska at this time. The city will not be raising its assessment of the community’s risk level, which is currently at “medium.” Under the city’s COVID-19 emergency response plan, the city will not move to “high” risk unless there is confirmed community spread or widespread exposure of COVID-19 on the island.

Mayor Vince Tutiakoff Sr. said the city’s unified command — which is a COVID-19 response team made up of healthcare officials, seafood industry, school district representatives, social service agencies, and the Qawalangin Tribe — has developed comprehensive plans.

“I want the community to know that we keep all of their health as number one priority, and today shows that [our plan] works,” said Tutiakoff. “The team got together, worked out a plan, and got it working within a half hour of when the question arose as to whether the employee was infected or not. So [the plan] works and the community has to have confidence in what we’re trying to do.”

Reinders said it is up to every Unalaskan to practice social distancing measures and limit community spread as the state continues to open up. She said those measures include washing hands, maintaining a six-foot distance from others, wearing a face covering over both the nose and mouth, and keeping social circles small.

The Tustumena departed Unalaska on Saturday night with crew and six passengers that had originally boarded in Homer. During transit, only essential crew will operate the ship, and the remaining people  on board will self-quarantine, DOT says.

Everyone will be tested for COVID-19 once the ship arrives in Homer. The Tustumena’s future sailings are suspended until further notice.

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