Sailings for the M/V Tustumena will resume later this month, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Initially, on June 8, the DOT said it would cancel all of the state ferry’s sailings “indefinitely” after a crew member on the Tustumena tested positive for COVID-19. The positive result came just hours after the vessel arrived in Unalaska Saturday.
Officials said the indefinite suspension was due to a shortage of crew. However, a day later, DOT said sailings are expected to resume June 27 when the ship departs from Homer to Kodiak.
The Tustumena arrived in Homer late Monday night, having sailed back to port without making any stops along the Aleutian chain.
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, said in a Monday press briefing that the 35 crew members and six remaining round-trip passengers were set to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival in Homer. Only the symptomatic crew member was tested while in Unalaska.
“Crew and passengers can leave the ferry [in Homer] while their swab results are pending if they’re returning to their final destination or home where they can appropriately quarantine for 14 days, and they have private transportation to their final destination, and that private transportation would not expose new individuals,” McLaughlin said.
If passengers and crew cannot meet those three criteria they will likely have to quarantine for 14 days on the vessel.
John Falvey, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, said it will likely be difficult for many of the 35 crew members to meet those conditions because many are from the Anchorage and Kenai area or the Lower 48, and use public transportation to get to and from the Tustumena’s port in Homer.
Officials from the state’s health department said all but one of the individuals they’ve identified as close contacts of the COVID-19 positive crew member are fellow ferry workers on the ship. A separate ferry worker is currently quarantining at home officials said.
Any passengers on board the Tustumena’s journey last week should remain in quarantine for 14 days. Officials made an exception for those passengers who only briefly boarded in Unalaska for the northbound leg on Saturday afternoon.
Meadow Bailey, communications director for the DOT, confirmed that marine highway leadership knew there was a potential COVID-19 case among the crew before boarding began.
“A lot of these decisions were happening simultaneously — first notifying all of the required officials and then working to determine if we could get a [COVID-19] test, and what the arrangements would need to be, and how quickly that test could be returned,” said Bailey. “So those decisions and that scenario were happening at the same time.”
Officials contacted Iliuliuk Family and Health Services at 3:30 p.m., clinic staff tested the crew member at 5 p.m., and they received the positive test results at approximately 6 p.m., according to Bailey. AMHS personnel then asked Unalaskans to disembark.
Falvey said there’s minimal risk to those approximately 21 northbound passengers because they didn’t come in contact with the sick crew member who was isolated in a ventilation-secured cabin with a face covering on.
Still, state health officials said out of an “abundance of caution,” those passengers should self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days, but they needn’t quarantine.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, AMHS implemented enhanced COVID-19 mitigation protocols at all of its facilities and aboard all vessels earlier this month, in order to protect the health and safety of its customers and employees. Measures include limiting the number of passengers allowed on its ferries and requiring that passengers complete a health screening form before boarding. However, per company protocol, crew and passengers are not required to have a COVID-19 test prior to boarding AMHS vessels.
When asked if the first positive case among ferry workers is an indication that the State of Alaska opened up too soon, Dr. Anne Zink said the state has “clearly met the criteria to open up.” And although communities around the state are seeing spikes in numbers, it is now up to Alaskans to work together to help minimize risk.