Petersburg’s testing program aims to keep COVID-19 out of seafood plants

OBI workers entering the seafood processing plant (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

Hundreds of seafood processing workers come to Petersburg every year, creating a high-risk scenario for COVID transmission. Workers at the town’s two processing giants – OBI Seafoods and Trident Seafoods – live on a closed campus. But there are also Petersburg residents who work at the plants. So the local COVID testing program aims to identify and isolate positive cases before they can transmit from town into one of the plants.

At the beginning of the summer, seafood companies went to great lengths to safely fly the seasonal workforce to Alaskan towns like Petersburg. It took careful planning and millions of dollars to test and quarantine the workers.

“It could decimate the economy of the community and also impact the fisheries. We saw that in meat packing situations down south,” said Liz Bacom, manager of infection prevention at the Petersburg Medical Center. “And so they were very aggressive with getting a plan where they tested their seasonal workforce in Seattle before they came up here, and they were automatically quarantined for 14 days.”

As a result, two positive cases – one worker for Trident and one with Ocean Beauty Icicle Seafoods – were detected and isolated this summer.

But then the risk changed. With the vast majority of seasonal workers testing negative and restricted to a closed campus, the risk of COVID being transmitted into the plants came from Petersburg residents who worked in the plants. Fortunately, there have been very few cases of COVID in the community, so the risk has been low.

“If there had been an outbreak in the community, it would have been a very high risk for the cannery workers going back and forth,” Bacom said. “Fortunately our cases in Petersburg have been minimal, and there hasn’t been community transmission, and so we’re in a very fortunate situation as compared to other communities.”

In June, the Petersburg Borough Assembly approved just over $177,000 in federal CARES Act funding for regular COVID testing for the local resident seafood processing workforce.

Angela Menish is the Director of Patient Services at the Petersburg Medical Center and oversees the testing program, which happens every two weeks.

“Friday morning we head down with our supplies and PPE,” explained Bacom. “We have two people checking people through and getting their consent, and then they come over to the little swab station, which is a little protected area with plexiglass, and they test themselves.”

Workers swab their own nostrils. It’s a newer type of test, not the deep nasal swab that used to be common and could be painful. The tests are sent to a lab in Bellingham, Washington, and results take about 2-4 days.

“If someone were to have symptoms, that would be a different story,” Manesh said. “They would be tested through the respiratory screening clinic, and they would definitely quarantine until the results were back.”

The medical center estimates that about 177 local workers from OBI and Trident get tested each week.

But the medical center relies on the seafood companies to identify their local workers who need to be tested. The companies also do their own workforce testing, but neither OBI nor Trident answered KFSK’s requests for comment about them.

Plant workers are required to wear masks and maintain social distancing, and they’re screened for COVID symptoms each day when they start work. KFSK spoke with several seasonal workers who reported they’re satisfied with the protocols and feel safe working at the plant.

For Tonka Seafoods, a small processing plant with about 19 employees — half seasonal and half local residents — management has made asymptomatic COVID testing optional. They said they adhere to COVID protocols and require masking of employees and customers, and they told KFSK they’re aware testing is available.

Infection preventionist Liz Bacom says the seafood processing companies have been doing a good job with COVID protocols, and every effort counts.

“We have people flying in from all over, and you know, there’s always that possibility. So we just really can’t let our guard down,” Bacom said. “Things can change very quickly, and I just don’t want to have that happen here.”

The Petersburg Medical Center has federal CARES Act funding to continue the testing program for local resident seafood processing workers through September, with the possibility of an extension. But the Petersburg Borough says that will depend on whether state or federal funding is available.