Seafood processing worker tests positive for COVID-19 in Cordova, Alaska

A worker for Ocean Beauty Seafoods became the first positive case of COVID-19 in Cordova, Alaska, the home port of the famous Copper River salmon fishery.

Ocean Beauty’s president Mark Palmer told KLAM radio on Wednesday, 6 May, that the worker was asymptomatic and had been isolated in a bunk room.

The worker, a machinist, is among the first 15 employees Ocean Beauty sent up for the 2020 salmon season, set for its opener on 14 May.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin joined Ocean Beauty’s Palmer and state and local medical officials for the interview.

“It feels like a bit of a hit in the stomach when you realize it’s come to your community. We recognized that this probably happen in some manner or another, but I feel really good about the work of our own medical team here in the city of Cordova and the state, who have really put some great resources in place,” Koplin told KLAM.

Koplin said the cooperation between processors like Ocean Beauty and the fishing fleets has been strong.

Palmer said Ocean Beauty is funneling all non-resident workers through Seattle, where they are put up in a 100-room hotel and undergo an initial test for COVID-19. Upon arrival in Cordova, workers are then taken directly to the processing plant for quarantine and a second round of testing.

“When we first started thinking about sending employees to Alaska for the summer season, we were as active as we could be in looking for testing opportunities in the Seattle area. We identified a laboratory and were able to secure enough tests – these are PCR tests, currently the gold standard for testing – to test 100 percent of our employees who were headed north, and then have a second test once they arrived at the facilities,” Palmer told KLAM.

According the Anchorage Daily News, the worker tested negative in Seattle and arrived in Cordova on 22 April. The worker was tested for a second time on 1 May, with a positive test result coming back Tuesday night, 5 May. Palmer told KLAM that all the workers had been isolated in individual bunk rooms.

Officials were unsure where the worker contracted COVID-19, and were investigating the worker’s contact since his initial testing in Seattle.

The positive case will sound alarm bells for many who locals who were concerned about non-resident workers coming into the rural area to work the salmon fishery, but Dr. Anne Zink, the chief medical officer for the state of Alaska, told KLAM the cooperation in Cordova should reassure residents.  

“People have been very cooperative and if I lived in Cordova, I would feel very reassured. In Alaska, in general, people have been working together and that is why we have low case numbers and why we haven’t had our hospitals overrun,” Zink said.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Ocean Beauty hires about 50 people to work the early salmon run and another 200 later in the summer for the Prince William Sound fishery.

The Copper River fishery brings hundreds of non-resident employees into the Cordova area, which has a population of around 2,200 people. It is seen as a test run for how other summer salmon fisheries might play out amidst the pandemic, in particular Bristol Bay, Alaska, where some 12,000 non-resident workers flood rural southwestern Alaska for the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Ess/National Fisherman


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