They sanitized, screened, quarantined and they still got COVID-19

Workers remove the bones from salmon fillets at Alaska Glacier Seafoods’ Auke Bay processing plant in 2015. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

The owners of a local seafood processor thought they did everything right to keep their business safely running during the pandemic.

But even with mandatory COVID-19 screening and two week quarantine for out-of-state staff, the virus still found its way into the facility.

On July 4, a Juneau resident who works at Alaska Glacier Seafoods started showing COVID-19 symptoms. He quarantined at home immediately and got tested.

“Unfortunately, you can be contagious for days prior to showing symptoms,” said Jim Erickson, vice president and co-owner of the company. “That’s what makes this disease so hard to get in front of.”

Health officials who investigated the case say it resulted from community spread — not from inside the plant.

“We’re not sure where he contracted it initially, because he’s probably not sure,” Erickson said this week. “I mean, let’s face it, you could pick it up anywhere.”

Within a week, that employee had tested positive and several coworkers on the same work crew had started to experience fevers and body aches.

Alaska Glacier Seafoods employs close to 150 people during the summer season and processes more than 10 million pounds of crab, fish and prawns a year.

But all of that came to a halt last week, when that initial case set off a domino effect that led to at least 40 staff members getting sick. Most are non-residents. Erickson says none of the cases have been serious.

They’ve tested about 130 employees total.

Until they can resume normal operations, other seafood processors in the region are picking up the slack.

Erickson said the seafood industry in Southeast Alaska agreed before the season began to help one another out if anyone experienced an outbreak. So Alaska Glacier Seafoods is buying from fishing tenders, then delivering the products to other processors instead of processing it at the Juneau plant.

“It’s been seamless for our fishing fleet. It hasn’t been so seamless for us,” he said.

But the most frustrating part of this process has been waiting for test results to come back.

Employees have to quarantine for up to a week while they’re waiting for results. That’s effectively shut down the plant and made it hard to plan.

“On average, a five to seven day turnaround for testing makes it very, very difficult to get in front of this as a company and as a community,” Erickson said.

Public health officials say there are a number of reasons test results can be delayed.

There are backlogs at state labs in Anchorage and Fairbanks and private labs out of state.

In Southeast Alaska, where all tests have to be flown out, weather can also cause delays.

Erickson believes it shouldn’t be this hard to get results quickly. An employee who traveled to Seattle a few weeks ago for work was told he needed to test negative within 24 hours before a business meeting.

“This individual on a Monday got tested at noon at a drive up testing stand in Seattle and was emailed his negative results by 4:30 p.m. the same day,” Erickson said. “My question is, why can’t we have that in Juneau?”

The City and Borough of Juneau has discussed buying equipment to process tests locally.  But because of high demand around the country, the waitlist is several months long.

Erickson said all they can do for now is continue testing and sanitizing and hope there isn’t another outbreak.

But it feels like they already did everything they could to avoid this in the first place.

“If you would have asked me, ‘Hey, if you get COVID-19, where are you going to get it from?’ I would have said, ‘Well, from somebody we brought in from out of state, most likely.’ But that wasn’t the case,” he said. “We weren’t expecting it from community spread, to be quite honest.”

Some of the people who initially tested positive have already recovered. And they’re going to continue testing staff who already tested negative as a precaution.

Editor’s note: Shortly after this story published, another 21 employees of the plant tested positive for COVID-19. 

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