Infected cannery worker tested negative in Seattle

Ben Hedges adds viral transport medium to vials at the Alaska State Virology Lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (April 8, 2020) Photo courtesy of JR Ancheta/University of Alaska Fairbanks

A cannery worker who tested positive for the coronavirus in Cordova showed no symptoms such as fever or cough, officials said. The Ocean Beauty Seafoods employee tested negative in Seattle April 20 before flying into Cordova.

A test performed Friday, May 1 returned a positive result, said Mark Palmer, president and CEO of Ocean Beauty. It remains uncertain whether the cannery worker was infected subsequent to the April 20 test, or whether that test yielded a false negative.

The coronavirus-positive worker is being isolated in a room at Ocean Beauty’s Cordova bunkhouse, Palmer said. Ocean Beauty has about 15 employees at its Cordova facility, leaving ample room for social distancing.

In order to prevent its canneries from becoming vectors for the coronavirus, Ocean Beauty has purchased over 700,000 masks and spent more than $500,000 on polymerase chain reaction testing supplies. PCR testing is one of the most popular and reliable methods of diagnosing COVID-19. Because PCR testing responds to the genetic signature of the virus itself, rather than measuring the body’s immune response to the virus, it is able to return a positive result in the early stages of infection, before symptoms have appeared. Ocean Beauty has enough supplies to test all its employees at least twice, and is prepared to do all of its own testing throughout the fishing season if necessary, Palmer said.

All Ocean Beauty employees arriving to work in Cordova have traveled via Seattle. Prior to departure from Seattle, employees are kept isolated in a hotel until a nurse can administer a PCR test. Once this test yields a negative result, transit to Cordova is booked. Arriving in Cordova, the employees are quarantined at Ocean Beauty’s bunkhouse, where a second PCR test is performed. The coronavirus-positive individual was identified during this second round of routine, post-arrival testing, Palmer said.

Rigorous sanitation procedures are necessary to safely prepare uncooked food products like cold smoked salmon, which are susceptible to bacterial contamination. Now, Ocean Beauty is applying similar safeguards to all its workspaces, Palmer said. At Ocean Beauty’s Cordova plant, employees are required to wear face coverings except during meals; meal breaks and coffee breaks are staggered; and employees are prohibited from congregating, wrote Brian O’Leary, Cordova manager for Ocean Beauty, in an April 17 statement. Employees will be quarantined on the property for the season, and interaction with the community will be carried out through intermediaries, Palmer said.

“It’s a discipline and it’s a culture that we really have ingrained into us,” Palmer said. “We have infrastructure and people who are trained in it. We understand it. So, those are the disciplines that we’ve tried to deploy to break transmission… This thing really started to get serious for everyone in February, and that hasn’t given us a tremendous amount of time to make all these extra preparations and put all the logistics in place. But we’ve been able to do it.”

Two Ocean Beauty plants outside Alaska have previously reported coronavirus cases. Strict sanitation procedures, including shutting one plant down for two days, prevented these individual infections from developing into plant-wide outbreaks, Palmer said.

Mayor Clay Koplin sports a mask with an image of a Copper River salmon being eaten by a bear. (April 24, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“I don’t want people to think that the virus, when it’s introduced… automatically spreads like wildfire through a facility,” Palmer said. “I think we have an advantage when it comes to controlling it, because it’s part of how we approach our ready-to-eat business.”

Ocean Beauty is working closely with the city and local health care providers, Mayor Clay Koplin said in a Wednesday, May 6 release. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is also contacting people who may have had interactions with the coronavirus-positive individual.

“We all knew that, at some point, we would get a positive case, and I feel very lucky that it occurred in a controlled manner such as this,” said Cordova Community Medical Director Dr. Hannah Sanders in an interview with Cordova Radio.

As this is a travel-associated case involving a person whose movements can easily be traced, it is a low-risk event for the community, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink told Cordova City Council in a May 6 meeting. There does not appear to be community transmission of the coronavirus in Cordova, she said.

“It reminds me of the very first day that we had a positive in the state of Alaska,” Zink said in an interview with Cordova Radio. “It can feel like you’re getting punched in the stomach when you find out there is that first case in a community. Every new community that gets a case, it always feels that way, a little bit, all over again.”

Face coverings are mandatory on the ramps and floats of Cordova Harbor. (May 5, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Proactive health measures have helped keep the spread of the coronavirus relatively limited in Alaska, Zink said.

Local health care providers are now offering free drive-up coronavirus testing for out-of-state arrivals, according to a May 6 release. The tests will be available Mondays and Wednesdays, 2-4 p.m., at Ilanka Community Health Center, and Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2-4 p.m. at the CCMC ambulance bay. Individuals who have arrived from outside Alaska within the previous 14 days will be eligible, according to the release. Patients are requested to call ahead to register for this service.

Hand-washing stations have been installed at the tops of all ramps at Cordova Harbor, Koplin announced Tuesday, May 5. These stations are entirely foot-operated and dispense both soap and water. More stations will be installed at the bottom of the ramps once parts arrive, Koplin said.

The Cordova Harbormaster’s Office has black-and-yellow “Lima” signal flags available, Koplin said. These flags are used to signal that a vessel is under quarantine.

First stage of reopening pushed back 24 hours

At a May 6 special meeting, city council carried out a sometimes strained debate over how to begin loosening public health restrictions, allowing a greater number of non-essential businesses to operate following strict social distancing and sanitation requirements. By the conclusion of the meeting, city council passed an emergency order that will loosen some restrictions on businesses beginning 9 a.m. Friday, May 8.

City Manager Helen Howarth emphasized the need to make certain that any reopening was final, and that businesses wouldn’t be opened one week only to be closed again the next. There remained a slight, but appreciable, possibility that the coronavirus-positive cannery worker had had more contact with the community than expected, which could require the city to again increase public health restrictions, she said.

“We don’t want to put businesses in the position where they’re having to yo-yo back and forth between, ‘Oh, I can open! Oh, no, I can’t open!’” Howarth said. “Just keep that in mind.”

Councilman David Allison said it seemed unlikely that reopening small businesses like hair salons and boutique shops would add much risk of coronavirus transmission in comparison to larger businesses like fish processors.

City Manager Helen Howarth. (May 1, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“I don’t think anything we’ve had so far has been an emergency,” Allison said. “Some people would classify this as an emergency, and we did, so that we could get federal and state funding, but, really, we haven’t had an emergency yet… In my mind, and a lot of people’s minds, we’re trying to punish the little guys for not being able to control the fishing industry and the processors and the grocery stores, and where the real risk is. So, I just don’t see the risk in letting these other people open up responsibly.”

Councilman Tom Bailer expressed frustration that emergency mandates had seemingly ended up obstructing efforts to revitalize the local economy.

“We could’ve, and we should’ve, opened last week,” Bailer said. “We’re going to be doing this all summer. We will have other cases. We need to get on with our lives.”

Sanders asked for a 24-hour delay on the emergency order in order to identify the people the coronavirus-positive individual had had contact with. This amendment was unanimously approved by the council, pushing the order’s effective date back from Thursday, May 7 to May 8.

Local health care providers have the capacity to test 1,118 people, according to data published May 6 by the city. Seventy-five individuals have been tested, of which 43 have returned negative results and 31 are awaiting results.