Preparing for influx of fishery workers, Cordova weighs its options

City considers buying antibody screening kits — less certain, but far quicker, than other tests

Fish processing workers are expected to begin arriving soon for Cordova’s 2020 fishery. (April 7, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cordova City Council debated whether to spend $250,000 on coronavirus antibody screening equipment at a Friday, April 3 emergency meeting. Including shipping fees and other incidental costs, $250,000 would be sufficient to buy supplies for 50,000 screening tests, Mayor Clay Koplin said. Council referred the issue to staff for further research.

Antibody screenings measure the immune system’s response to a virus, and may return a false negative result if performed too soon after infection. However, they provide a cheap and quick alternative to coronavirus diagnostic tests, and are able to return a result within 15 minutes. Koplin characterized the screenings not as a foolproof way to identify infected individuals, but as a measure that would be effective when used alongside other methods.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Koplin said. “It’s another tool in the kit.”

The screenings would be purchased from Advin Biotech, the San Diego subsidiary of Hangzhou Biotest Biotech Co., a China-based diagnostic supply manufacturer. Delivery would provisionally be expected to take two to three weeks, Koplin said. Paying for the screening kits upfront would be necessary to put the city’s order in Hangzhou’s manufacturing queue. However, it was uncertain whether it would be possible to cancel the order should a better alternative for testing become available after the payment was made. Fifty thousand units was the minimum available order.

Although this particular screening procedure has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, placing an order now could allow the city to get its foot in the door in case demand for testing kits increases. Alternatively, the city could ask for access to antibody testing kits purchased by the state, Koplin said.

“We have an opportunity in front of us,” Koplin said. “This is how a nationwide, global crisis plays out. There’s going to be people competing for resources… When something starts to gain traction, the demand is going to spike for it.”

Some council members voiced skepticism of the screening’s effectiveness.

“To me, the money’s not the overriding issue here,” Councilman Tom Bailer said. “If this is what we need, we’ll come up with the money. I have more concern that it’s not an FDA-approved product… I have concern that we haven’t reached out to other communities, whether by telephone or email, saying, ‘What are you doing?’ If this is such a great, quote unquote, ‘tool,’ you’d think they’d be all on board too.”

As of Tuesday, April 7, 10 coronavirus diagnostic tests have been carried out in Cordova, all of which have yielded negative results, according to a release from the city. More tests have not been carried out because individuals have not been sick enough to meet guidelines for testing established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the release. Cordova Community Medical Center and Ilanka Community Health Center have a combined capacity to test about 300 people, according to the release. The city has requested more tests. As of Wednesday, April 8, no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Cordova have been announced.

An antibody testing kit used to screen for the HIV virus. (June 26, 2019) Photo courtesy of NIAID

City adjusts pandemic response

Fire and Police Chief Mike Hicks, who had previously announced he would retire as police chief May 1, has decided to delay his retirement. Hicks is currently serving as deputy incident commander for the Cordova COVID-19 Incident Management Team. His duties in this role include liaising with the state public safety commissioner regarding plans for coronavirus-related law enforcement in Cordova, according to an April 7 release from the city.

All city-owned public playgrounds, including the Mt. Eccles Elementary School playground, have been closed. Resources are not available to keep all playground surfaces disinfected, according to a release from the city.

No shortages of milk, eggs, butter or other staples were reported at local grocery stores.

Mayor Clay Koplin has voiced support for placing a $250,000 order for coronavirus antibody screening supplies. (April 3, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Processors lay out extensive safety measures

Fishing vessel operators began to submit mutual aid agreements to the city, guaranteeing that they would screen workers for the coronavirus and take other steps to limit the spread of the disease. Trident Seafoods was among the first to submit such an agreement to the city, certifying that a crew of Cordova residents delivering a boat from Kodiak would adhere to the city’s health rules after returning.

Active monitoring of fishing vessels’ compliance with these agreements will be undertaken by the Cordova Harbormaster’s Office. Sufficiently egregious violation of a mutual aid agreement could be punished with a fine or with arrest, city officials said.

All processors have been asked to submit plans to the state and to the city explaining how they plan to quarantine all out-of-town staff for 14 days following their arrival in Cordova, Koplin said at an April 3 press conference. While these workers will still be able to work while quarantined, they will be kept separate from the local workforce at this time, he said. Some processors may go as far as keeping staff on the premises for the entire season, he said. All processors plan to transport newly arrived staff directly from the airport to their facility, and some are instituting health screenings before potential staff depart for Cordova.

Processors are expected to continue rolling out additional coronavirus safety measures to supplement those already in place. A fisheries task force assembled by the city has created a set of recommended procedures the fleet can follow when arriving in Cordova Harbor to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, City Manager Helen Howarth said. These recommended procedures are planned for publication Friday, April 10.

“At no point is the health of the community second to industry,” City Manager Helen Howarth said. “And I really appreciate all the people that are stepping up with a willingness to help.”

‘An insurmountable scenario’

In a March 30 email to Koplin, CCMC Medical Director Dr. Hannah Sanders warned of “an insurmountable scenario” that would arise if too many people entered Cordova during the summer. In the email, Sanders wrote that a large influx of people to Cordova during the summer could push the coronavirus infection rate as high as 70 percent in some areas. Such a rise in infection, which would require 630 medevacs over a short period of time, would create an unmanageable burden, Sanders wrote.

“It is time for Cordova, the city, the fisherman, and the state to be very creative with solutions to this problem,” read the email in part. “The world is suffering at the hands of this illness. The millions of pounds of fish are vital to providing nutritious foods throughout the world. Is there a solution that doesn’t require putting Cordovans lives at risk?”

After having been sent to Koplin, the email was released to the public in what city officials described as a leak. Sanders’s email was part of an ongoing conversation about potential public health measures, and the persuasive language she used in the email shouldn’t be taken as a complete and up-to-date description of the situation, city officials said. Sanders agreed with the city’s assessment of the email, she said.

“Something that’s said three days ago is very much a snapshot,” Koplin said at an April 3 city council meeting. “Things are moving very quickly, and the context of her comprehensive and fairly dire outlook was in the context of a worst-case scenario… outside of the context of other emails that we exchanged.”

In an April 8 open letter, Sanders urged Cordova residents to have confidence in the response effort coordinated by city and medical officials.

Taking to social media, Cordovans have conducted a sometimes unruly debate over how the 2020 fishing season should be handled. An online petition asking Koplin to restrict almost all travel into Cordova gathered 412 signatures as of April 8.

City employees, working up to 100 hours of overtime per week, have rapidly developed a strong and comprehensive set of safeguards to minimize the chances of the coronavirus entering Cordova, Howarth said. However, the city’s efforts to manage public anxiety about the coronavirus have been less successful, she said.

It’s not absolutely certain whether Cordova can expect to have a fishery this year, Koplin said at an April 3 city council meeting. The city does not have the authority to shut down the city’s fish processors, which have been designated critical infrastructure by the state, he said.

In an April 6 letter, Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby requested Gov. Mike Dunleavy consider intervening immediately to shut down the Bristol Bay salmon fishery in order to prevent coronavirus transmission. However, such a response isn’t on Cordova’s radar, Howarth said.

“We are prepared to make sure that every protection is in place to keep COVID from coming into our ports of entry, short of shutting the whole town down,” Howarth said. “We’re all worried about someone getting sick with COVID, but we also need to be worried about people getting sick emotionally and mentally because their livelihood has been destroyed. The economic consequence of people losing their jobs… has a health consequence for the community. Really exceptional measures, like closing the fishery, may keep COVID from coming in, but would create a whole bunch of other health issues for our community.”