Gov. Mike Dunleavy has ordered additional testing and quarantine requirements for seafood processors across Alaska under the extended state emergency health declaration.
The original mandates released over the summer revolved around travel. The new orders focus more on how to contain outbreaks in the plants, requiring continuous testing and increased quarantine procedures.
“There was a lot of work that was completed over the last couple of months, and we were able to finalize that working in partnership with industry to make sure those requirements were achievable,” Bryan Fisher, incident commander at the state’s unified command, said on a call with the media this week.
The order went into effect on Nov. 16, the same day as the extended state Health Emergency Declaration, and will last until Dec. 15. It requires all shore-based facilities to implement a continuous screening testing strategy before Jan. 1.
“Catching an outbreak early in a processing plant is really key to trying to minimize the infection rate and make sure it’s not as high as it has been in some of the outbreaks we saw in the spring and early summer,” Fisher said.
Facilities have several options to quarantine their incoming employees. They can test and quarantine their employees before arrival in Alaska, or wait until the workers arrive in Alaska and quarantine them outside the area of destination. The only requirement for this option is the presence of a general acute care or critical access hospital in the community.
Once they arrive at the quarantine community, employees must receive a PCR test within 72 hours. They must also receive a test 72 hours before arriving at their final destination.
The third option is a post-travel quarantine, where employees arrive at their destination and quarantine in a separate facility from the plant. They are not permitted to work during this time. They must test for COVID-19 within 48 hours of arrival.
While continuous testing is now required in all shore-based facilities, the frequency with which the facilities test their employees will differ depending on the risk level of the community.
Some seafood processing facilities have an open campus, where employees conduct regular interactions with members of the local community or others. An open campus can also be one in which a portion of its staff live in the local community, or one that allows mixing or business transactions between the plant staff and the local community without keeping 6 feet of distance.
If a seafood processing plant that has an open campus is located in a community at high alert level, or in a community that has a school on high alert, the facility must test all commuting workers and 25% of onsite workers every seven days, or 50% of workers 21 days after new workers arrive.
In a community at medium alert level, such as Kodiak, an open-campus facility must test all commuting workers and 50% of onsite workers every two weeks. In low-level communities, each worker must be tested at least once every 28 days.
For closed-campus facilities, workers must be tested every 14 days within a span of 28 days after the arrival of new employees in a community on high alert.
In a community on medium alert, closed-campus seafood processing plant employees must be tested if they have mingled with the community. Testing should occur seven to 10 days after contact.
Workers in closed campuses located in communities in the low alert level must be tested once every 28 days.
At-sea processors will also have to quarantine and test their employees, with the frequency of testing also dependent on the community risk level.
Trident Seafoods has a large workforce that processes Kodiak’s abundant and diverse seafood. Because the facility has had strict protocols in place since Dunleavy released his state health mandates in May, the new orders do not change operations drastically, said Shannon Carroll, the associate director of public policy at Trident.
“Daily screening for COVID-19 symptoms has been part of Trident’s protocol since March,” Carroll said in an email.
He added that the company will increase the frequency of their testing. Because testing capacity in Kodiak may be limited, the company is working on locating additional testing resources.
“We have also been conducting continuous screening testing on our resident employees since early summer and view this as an important measure to protect our employees from community spread,” he said.
From spring to early fall, Alaska seafood processors spent millions of dollars on mitigating the spread of COVID-19. These new orders will continue to increase costs, often at the expense of the processor.
“Implementing COVID-19 protocols has been and will continue to be costly, but we are committed to the health and safety of our employees and community,” Carroll said. “We appreciate the significant investment the state has made in keeping our industry operating and look to continue that partnership in 2021.”