COVID-19. (CDC)

COVID-19. (CDC)

Cases climb as outbreaks reported among seafood workers

Two Alaskans died this week and 16 more were hospitalized after contracting the disease.

This week in Alaska’s ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the state identified four large, distinct outbreaks among seafood workers and reported a total of 591 new cases. In addition, two Alaskans died this week and 16 more were hospitalized after contracting the disease.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy held a press conference on Wednesday to address the continued rise in cases statewide. He strongly encouraged Alaskans to wear masks in public spaces when it is not possible to socially distance, in order to potentially slow the spread of the virus.

“We need the help of individual Alaskans,” Dunleavy said on Wednesday. “Not statewide mandates, but individual Alaskans. So when you wake up in the morning, put a mask in your pocket. If you’re going to come to a state building, throw the mask on if you can’t be 6 feet or more away from others. If you’re going to the store, throw the mask on as you’re in the store.”

Four companies, four communities, four outbreaks

The first outbreak tied to the seafood industry this week was identified in Dutch Harbor aboard the seafood processing vessel the American Triumph, which is part of the American Seafoods Fleet, according to a July 21 press release from the Department of Health and Social Services.

The ship docked in Dutch Harbor on July 16, where crew members were tested for COVID-19 upon arrival after they reported symptoms associated with the disease.

All crew members were tested at the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services Clinic at the U.S. Coast Guard dock in Dutch Harbor. By July 18, 85 of the 119 crew members tested positive. None of the crew members who tested positive were Alaska residents.

Alaska’s Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin called it “Alaska’s largest discrete outbreak to date” when it was first reported on Tuesday and said it highlighted how quickly the virus can spread in congregate settings such as seafood vessels or processing plants.

At the same time, public health officials identified an outbreak at Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Juneau that occurred as a result of spread within the community, according to a July 17 press release from the City and Borough of Juneau. By Tuesday of this week, 38 employees at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19 — eight residents and 30 nonresidents.

On Wednesday, DHSS reported a third outbreak that surpassed the American Triumph’s as the largest in Alaska — this time at the OBI Seafoods plant in Seward. The first case associated with this outbreak was identified when one of the plant’s employees sought medical care at the Providence Seward Medical Center for an unrelated health issue, according to a July 22 press release from the state. All 262 of the plant’s employees were subsequently tested and isolated. As of Friday, 98 of the employees had tested positive, according to a July 24 press release from the City of Seward.

All of the nonresident employees at OBI Seafoods as well as two of the 11 resident employees are now isolating in Anchorage, while the other nine resident employees who tested positive are isolating at their homes in Seward. All of the positive employees aboard the American Triumph were transported to Anchorage for isolation as well.

To end the week, a fourth outbreak was identified at Copper River Seafoods processing plant in Anchorage, where 56 out of 134 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday, according to a July 24 press release from the Municipality of Anchorage. Almost all of the employees at this plant are Anchorage residents. Anchorage’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Chandler said in the press release that the outbreak likely reached more than just the seafood workers.

“This is a concerning situation for the people of Anchorage,” Chandler said. “With so many workers now testing positive, it is likely that this outbreak has been in progress for some time and that transmission has already occurred among family, friends and others in the community.”

In total, the four outbreaks associated with seafood processing facilities this week account for at least 277 new cases among residents and nonresidents. Not all of these cases have been included, however, in the data currently available on the state’s Coronavirus Response Hub. On Saturday, for example, the state reported 22 new nonresident cases in Seward, for a total of just 44 in the community since the beginning of the pandemic.

When asked why these outbreaks are not yet fully reflected in the state’s data, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said in a Zoom conference Thursday that large clusters are typically not reported all at once, and investigations by public health officials gradually confirm the residency and onset location for each case.

A footnote was included with the state’s July 24 press release that reads:

“Please note that occasionally there is a lag between cases being reported on the DHSS data dashboard and what local communities report as details are confirmed and documentation is received.”

COVID-19 in Alaska: By the numbers

With 591 new cases reported by DHSS this week, Alaska saw an average of 84 new cases per day. In the same period last week, a total of 385 cases were reported for an average of 55 per day.

A total of 32,056 tests were conducted this week for an average of 4,579 tests per day. This is significantly more than last week, when a total of 22,888 tests were conducted for an average of 3,270 per day.

With a total of 205,066 tests conducted as of Saturday, the current average positivity rate of tests processed in the last three days is 2.12%.

The percentage of tests with positive results statewide peaked on April 7 at 4.03% and declined sharply through April and May. Since May 22 — when the positivity rate was just .24% and Alaska officially entered Phase 3 of its Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan — the state’s positivity rate has steadily increased along with the rate of testing.

Statewide, there are currently 1,503 active cases among residents and 398 active nonresident cases. On the Kenai Peninsula there are at least 216 active cases — 170 among residents and 46 among nonresidents. With a total of 270 cases identified among residents and an estimated population of 58,367, the Kenai Peninsula Borough currently has the second-highest rate of infection among all regions in Alaska. Only the Yukon-Kuyokuk Census Area has a higher rate of infection, with 41 cases identified among an estimated population of 5,198.

Peninsula testing locations

Testing continues to be available from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at South Peninsula Hospital’s main entrance as well as through SVT Health & Wellness clinics in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point. Call ahead at the hospital at 907-235-0235 and at the SVT clinics at 907-226-2228.

Testing is also available at the NTC Community Clinic in Ninilchik. The NTC Community Clinic is the Indian Health Service provider for the Ninilchik Tribe.

The clinic is providing testing with a rapid testing machine to those with symptoms, travelers and asymptomatic people. There are currently no restrictions on who can get tested. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.

On the central peninsula, testing is available at Capstone Family Clinic, K-Beach Medical, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Central Peninsula Urgent Care, Peninsula Community Health Services, Urgent Care of Soldotna, the Kenai Public Health Center and Odyssey Family Practice.

In Seward, testing is available at Seward Community Health Center, Providence Seward Medical Center, Glacier Family Medicine and Chugachmiut North Star Clinic.

Call Kenai Public Health at 907-335-3400 for information on testing criteria for each location.

For more information on the state’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, visit covid19.alaska.gov or email covidquestions@alaska.gov.

This analysis is based on data and information reported by Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services and other state and local agencies between Sunday, July 19 and Saturday, July 25.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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