Officials: Outbreak-stricken seafood plant had low vax rate

Virus spread to plant from general community, not arriving workers

Registered nurse Heather Whorton draws up a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s novel coronavirus vaccine. (Jan. 20, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Lack of vaccination has exacerbated an ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus, city officials said at a Tuesday, July 20 special meeting of Cordova City Council.

During the previous week, several Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods employees showed COVID-19 symptoms, according to a release by the city. Those employees were isolated and tested. After positive test results were returned, Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods facilities were locked down. Additionally, the Camtu Center retail store was shut down for roughly four days and was thoroughly sanitized, said Heather Brannon, emergency management coordinator for the city. Testing of all Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods employees showed a significant cluster of positive cases. Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods is now working with the city and with Cordova Community Medical Center, according to a release by the city.

The infection did not begin at Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods, but was evidently spread to employees through local contact, according to a release by the city. The company was highly responsive to the situation, Brannon said. However, high infection rates at the Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods facility were a result of very low vaccination rates among employees, City Manager Helen Howarth said.

“They did everything right in terms of making sure that they quarantined and got their workers here safe, but they did not anticipate… that there would be community spread and that their unvaccinated workers would be exposed to that and then would become infected with COVID, and that would impact a key industry here,” Howarth said. “Camtu’s facility, while they did everything they could to make sure that their workers were not coming in with COVID, they did not do everything they could do to protect them from us, citizens, with COVID, infecting them.”

Some other seafood processors, such as Trident Seafoods, report a 100% or near-100% vaccination rate, Howarth said. About half of Cordova’s then 70 active cases were linked to various seafood industry congregant housing facilities, CCMC Medical Director Dr. Hannah Sanders told city council July 20.

A transmission electron micrograph showing novel coronavirus particles emerging from the surface of a cell cultured in the lab. (June 29, 2021) Image courtesy of NIAID

Uncertain vaccination rate

In a Monday, July 19 memo to city council, Howarth asserted that Cordova’s coronavirus vaccination rate was well below 70%. Though at least 1,625 people have been fully vaccinated in Cordova, Howarth said that many of the people vaccinated in Cordova are industry workers who are not permanent residents.

“It’s really difficult for us to ascertain exactly the number… of vaccinated individuals, but, taking into account the number of folks from fishing vessels, visitors to town that are getting vaccinated, and our population, our actual vaccination rate is low, certainly lower than 70%,” Howarth told city council.

Councilman David Allison, however, questioned the veracity of Howarth’s memo.

“I just prefer to be as transparent as possible and not make it look any worse or any better than it really is, and I just thought that was trying to make it sound worse than it was,” Allison said.

In April, the city announced that it would aim for a 70% vaccination rate for eligible recipients before eliminating rules such as its mask mandate, though this goal was apparently later discarded. At the May 19 meeting in which city council voted to repeal most local COVID-19 rules, Sanders said that, while precise vaccination statistics for Cordova residents were unavailable, authorities were confident that well over 50% of all Cordova residents had been vaccinated by that point.

Statewide, 96% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 98% of COVID-19 deaths have been among unvaccinated people, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink told city council at its July 20 meeting, which Zink joined telephonically. However, Zink cautioned against blaming or pressuring people who choose not to be vaccinated.

“It is a personal choice,” Zink said.

Zink suggested encouraging vaccination by holding informational public meetings to answer common questions about vaccines. There has been a modest increase in interest in vaccinations since the beginning of the current outbreak, Sanders said.

A Wednesday, July 21 COVID-19 testing clinic was canceled after a fire alarm was received from Cordova Community Medical Center. (July 21, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Emergency rules revised

At its July 20 meeting, city council voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance revising the city’s community outbreak rules to permit greater flexibility in responding to coronavirus infections. For instance, under the revised community outbreak rules, an individual under a quarantine order is no longer by default prohibited from leaving his or her residence without official authorization. The council also voted unanimously to extend the city’s emergency declaration to Oct. 1 and to adjust the city’s emergency rules to allow greater flexibility in implementing less restrictive measures in the event that a local health alert is declared.

Following the current outbreak, some businesses have limited customer access or have begun requiring customers to wear masks. Though the city could once more mandate wearing masks in indoor venues, the city’s medical team hopes that the public will voluntarily resume mask-wearing without such a mandate, officials said.

“Masking is certainly a part of it, but the big place that we are seeing spread is in individual behaviors like household gatherings and people that are testing positive not following quarantine and being out in the community,” Sanders said.

A Wednesday, July 21 COVID-19 testing clinic was canceled after smoke set off a fire alarm at CCMC. CCMC plans to resume all regular operations by the morning of Thursday, July 22.

Cordova’s Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles office is closed for the week of Monday, July 19, and will be closed for the week of Monday, July 26, with the exception of Tuesday, July 27. This disruption of service is a result of short-staffing caused by the mandatory quarantining of a dispatcher and by cross-staffing between emergency dispatch and the DMV office.

Of the 221 cases so far reported in Cordova, 70 are believed to be currently active, according to data published by the city July 20. Of those 221 cases, 186 were Cordova residents and 35 were non-residents. A cumulative total of four people who tested positive for the virus have been hospitalized. As of July 20, 1,625 people have been fully vaccinated in Cordova.

The city has returned to updating its COVID-19 dashboard weekdays by 11 a.m., city officials announced.

Coronavirus vaccinations are available at both CCMC and Ilanka Community Health Center. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 907-424-3045.