Federal and state officials visited Kodiak on Wednesday as part of a whirlwind tour of fishing communities throughout the state to respond to COVID-19 related concerns.
The delegation was headlined by Dr. Alexander Eastman, the senior medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska chief medical officer; and Heidi Hedberg, Alaska director of public health.
During their visit to Kodiak, the delegation met with Coast Guard representatives, toured the Trident fish processing facility and bunk house, toured the Ocean Beauty fish processing facility, toured the alternate care site, and met with local officials in the Kodiak Emergency Operations Center.
Zink and Eastman praised the collaborations between different government and business entities that have kept Kodiak’s case count at one.
“Between industry, the schools, the EOC — just to see all those levels of people trying to figure out problems together, it’s just been amazing to see. It’s incredibly reassuring.” Zink said. “The people of Kodiak know what works in Kodiak in a way that the state won’t and the federal government won’t.”
Zink highlighted Kodiak’s alternate care site, implemented by Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center staff at the North Star Elementary gymnasium to provide care for COVID-19 patients that require oxygen or fluids.
“To see that ingenuity, people taking the good science and data and moving forward to keep people safe has been awesome,” Zink said.
Eastman echoed Zink, commending the care site, which has not been used since it opened more than a month ago, but will remain operational and ready to take in patients at a moment’s notice.
“I’ve seen a lot of these over the country in the last eight weeks. Like, a lot,” Eastman said. “It’s truly impressive that the city and borough have put so much time and effort into building a functional alternate care site.”
Eastman did not specify what kind of federal help would be coming to Kodiak, but said the visit will help him provide resources in the future.
“From my standpoint, we can’t help provide the city and region and state ... the resources that are needed if we don’t really understand the mission,” Eastman said. “The only way in my opinion to do that is to really come, work shoulder and shoulder with the state and local governments, that will allow us to then see clearly what the ground truth is here.”
The focus of the visit was on the commercial fishing industry, and Eastman said that both Kodiak and Alaska are prepared to face the upcoming season, which brings with it more off-island crew members and increased travel.
“The state and the local officials here have done the hard work of preparing for the upcoming season. I think they are in great shape,” Eastman said. “As we look over the next couple days, we are going to make sure we’re leaving no stone unturned, to make sure we really have a plan moving forward.”
City of Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson said the delegation provided city officials with an opportunity to make relationships with federal and state officials for any future needs. A current need she brought up with the delegation is enforcement of the state health mandates at the airport.
Although state health mandate 10 requires out-of-state visitors to fill out a travel declaration form and quarantine for 14 days, there is no one at the airport informing incoming visitors or workers.
Branson said members of the delegation suggested that the city allocate part of the $11.98 million it will receive from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to hire greeters at the airport.
“They are doing that in Cordova,” Branson said, adding jokingly, “I volunteered (Borough) Mayor (Bill) Roberts and myself.”
The visit to Kodiak comes after the delegation’s visits to Nome and Stebbins. After departing Kodiak on Wednesday afternoon, the delegation flew to Cordova. Today, they are expected to visit Dillingham, Egegik, King Salmon and Naknek.
Zink said the statewide plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in fishing communities will be “phased and layered.”
“We know the fish don’t wait. They are coming, regardless of whatever we do or don’t do,” Zink said. The approach will include “making sure that we are doing what we can to minimize the spread — that’s good hand washing, symptoms screening, having people that are sick not go to work. Those are all really important.”
Hedberg praised Trident and Ocean Beauty for the mitigation steps they have taken to protect their workforce, which include installing plexiglass barriers and separating groups that work in close proximity to one another.
“They’ve been really focusing on how to keep their workers safe, and that means keeping Kodiak safe,” Hedberg said.
Fish processing plants have been quarantining workers and testing them prior to allowing them to travel to Alaska.
Zink said it is important to learn from the experiences of meat processing plants in the Lower 48, which have become hubs for the spread of the virus.
“We have this opportunity to learn from the meatpacking industry, from other examples. I feel like Alaska having that little bit of space to be able to learn has been a grace,” she said. “We are all scrambling together to learn from others.”
While Kodiak’s testing capacity is on the rise, Zink said there may be a need to increase testing to keep the commercial fishing industry on its feet.
“We’re always looking for more testing capacity and trying to find ways to build it,” Zink said. “We understand there are a lot more people coming in. We really appreciate the (fishing) industry standing up and being able to do a lot of testing … It’s just going to be a partnership, hand-in-hand, throughout the summer to make sure that it’s there.”
Eastman cautioned that testing capacity is just one among many measures the community should take to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We’re talking about testing in every community in the United States,” Eastman said. “It’s not just about a testing approach. It’s about the other measures the community takes to protect itself. There’s no finer example than what I’m seeing here in Kodiak.”
Prior to traveling to Kodiak, all members of the delegation were tested for COVID-19. All tests were negative.
Zink said the virus will continue to dictate daily life “for a while.” Still, she said communities will have to find ways to allow social interactions, and reopen businesses and schools.
“This virus itself can be scary and overwhelming, but we need to not be scared or overwhelmed. We need to be just prepared,” Zink said.
“We need to find ways to be able to live in a world of COVID in a healthy, productive way. We have to find new ways to integrate it into our lives. Seeing what Kodiak has done is a great example of people finding ways to integrate those protective measures into their everyday lives.”
Dr. Robert Onders, medical director of community and health systems improvement with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, also travelled with the delegation. Onders said the delegation’s visit allowed officials to identify risks that can be mitigated to help protect the community, especially as Kodiak’s processing plants are located within city limits.
He noted that Eastman has toured other food processing plants located around the country, including meat processing plants, which could inform local and state officials about what is working and hindering COVID-19 preparedness in other states.
Eastman called for continued collaboration as businesses reopen and normal daily life resumes.
“The communities that are most prepared across the United States are the ones that have truly an integrated approach across disciplines. That is clearly the case in Kodiak,” he said.