The community of Dillingham, which has pushed back against the prospect of having a commercial salmon fishing season this year during the coronavirus pandemic, had its first seasonal worker test positive for COVID-19 on Friday.
Also, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported Saturday that a fifth Homer resident has tested positive for the disease, but it is not clear whether the person was tested locally at South Peninsula Hospital. Hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro said on Saturday that the state has not notified SPH of any additional positive tests from the local hospital. At press time DHSS had not responded to an email seeking more information on the Homer case.
This brings the number of Homer residents who have tested positive for the disease to five. Three of those people were tested locally in Homer.
The state’s Unified Command Joint Information Center reported Saturday that an out-of-state worker who had recently arrived in Dillingham to work seasonally for Trident Seafoods has tested positive.
“The case was discovered yesterday when several workers quarantining in the same location were tested for COVID-19 at the end of their 14-day quarantine,” the command center press release states. “Before workers can be released from quarantine, they need to meet all requirements outlined in the City of Dillingham ordinance including testing requirements.”
Only one worker out of that quarantined group in Dillingham tested positive and they were immediately isolated from the others, the state reported. Trident Seafood is arranging transportation, and the worker is leaving Dillingham sometime on Saturday.
“Although the individual is doing well and does not require hospitalization, Trident determined it would be best to transport the individual out of the community out of an abundance of caution to help protect Bristol Bay communities,” the release states.
Even though the remaining workers in that group all tested negative, they will observe another 14-day quarantine because they are considered close contacts of the person who tested positive. They will be monitored by public health nurses and will not be allowed to leave quarantine, the press release states.
According to Trident, the remaining workers in that group will have to test negative an additional two times by the end of their quarantine before being allowed to leave.
According to Gina Carpenter, a Public Health nurse in Dillingham, the group of workers arrived together and immediately went to their quarantine location.
“They haven’t exposed the community because they haven’t been out in the community,” Carpenter said in the press release. “This shows the benefit of these rules. These workers did everything right and followed the quarantine and testing requirements laid out in Trident’s industry plan.”
Addressing a myriad of topics during a Friday event press conference, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced an extension of the mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors to Alaska, addressed additional fishing season guidelines for setnetters and said the Aug. 18 primary election will proceed with in-person voting.
The health mandate that stipulates a 14-day self quarantine for anyone entering Alaska has been extended to June 2, but Dunleavy said the measure is being reevaluated daily and could be changed again before that date.
“You’re going to see more and more that we aren’t shifting away from the virus, but what we’re doing is shifting to managing the virus,” Dunleavy said.
He said the extension of the mandatory quarantine for visitors is to give the state time to see how its phased plan for reopening the economy and society is going to affect the number of COVID-19 cases.
“If things are looking good … there will be a decision point on the travel coming in from outside of the state,” Dunleavy said.
Shifting gears to the commercial fishing industry, which has already begun its season in Cordova, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum announced new measures being taken to screen seafood industry workers coming into the state from Outside.
The state is partnering with a contractor, he said, to test incoming workers onsite in the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport starting on Tuesday.
“This is another option, another layer that we’re putting in to make sure that we catch everybody coming in,” Crum said.
Companies that opt to utilize the testing at Ted Stevens must sign up their employees in advance, Crum said, and the employees must plan to stay in Anchorage for 48 hours to wait for the tests results to come back.
Crum said the plans for screening and testing will carry greatly across the board for seafood industry workers, depending on the sector of commercial fishing they are in, the processor they work for, and more. Some companies are testing their workers before they leave for Alaska while others are testing them again at their final destination. Crum said testing at the Anchorage airport is an option for those companies unable to test workers at their final destinations or that are unable to quarantine them.
Additionally, Crum announced that additional guidance specifically for setnetters is being added to the health mandate that guides commercial fishing operations in the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This was developed with a lot of input,” Crum said. “We had regional based groups talking with stakeholders, industry, working with communities about the unique needs. And so this is something we’re very happy to get out there.”
The state also updated the acknowledgement form that vessel captains are required to fill out and post on their boats. Crum said it has been updated to be more specific after requests from those in the commercial fishing industry.
Swinging over to the election process for the upcoming August primary, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer said the state will not be using mail in voting and will be sticking with the status quo.
“We’ve determined the best way to go is to go with our current process, but with some modifications,” he said.
Meyer said those who wish to vote from home and avoid the public lines and polling places will be able to request absentee ballots. He said the state will be pushing absentee and early voting in order to reduce the number of people turning out to vote all at the same time on election day.
The state has 165 locations for voting early, which Meyer said can be done up to 15 days before an election. Social distancing and personal protective equipment will be used both on election day and at the early voting locations.
Asked by a reporter whether canvass boards around the state will be given more time to certify the August election, given the likelihood of a greater number of absentee ballots, Meyer said it is more likely the state will look to hire more canvass board workers.
“I think rather than ask for more time, we’re going to ask for more workers to help us do the count,” he said. “So that we can meet that statutory deadline for 10 days.”
Also on Friday, the Alaska Legislature was set to return to Juneau to ratify the revised program legislative requests they used to allocate about $900 million in federal CARES Act dollars. A Juneau man has filed a lawsuit claiming using the RPL process to allocate the funds was unconstitutional. The Alaska State Legislature website shows both the House and Senate are to reconvene at 2 p.m. on Monday.
In an email exchange with other legislators on Friday, Rep. Ben Carpenter (R-Nikiski) compared proposed safety protocols for legislators re-entering the Capitol to Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany, the Anchorage Daily News and Associated Press reported.
The email was originally reported by Jeff Landfield of the Alaska Landmine blog.
“If my sticker falls off, do I get a new one or do I get a public shaming too?” Carpenter wrote in his emailed response to the protocols. “Are the stickers available as a yellow Star of David?”
The email exchange shows that Rep. Grier Hopkins (D-Fairbanks) replied to Carpenter, saying “This is disgusting. Keep your Holocaust jokes to yourself.”
Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) supported Carpenter.
“This is no joke,” she replied in the email exchange. “We should all be concerned about the implications of being labeled as ‘non compliant’ or wearing a badge of ‘compliance.’”
COVID-19 by the numbers
DHSS reported four new COVID-19 cases on Saturday. This reflects the cases that were reported to the state on Friday.
On Friday, the state had announced one new case of an Alaska resident as well as one positive case on a non-resident. The non-resident is a seafood industry worker whose case was identified in the Municipality of Anchorage, and their case is not being included in Alaska’s official count.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation also reported a new positive case on Friday, which was included in the state’s case count on Saturday. The person traveled from Anchorage, to Bethel, to a village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“The person was identified through COVID-19 screening and testing of passengers traveling through the Bethel Airport,” a DHSS press release said.
On Saturday, the state’s updated numbers showed a total of 392 positive COVID-19 cases. Of those, 344 people have recovered from COVID-19 so far.
The addition of the Trident worker in Dillingham makes nine total cases of non-Alaska residents.
Locally, South Peninsula Hospital had sent 640 samples off for testing as of Friday, according to the hospital’s website. Of those, four total tests have come back positive, 626 have come back negative and 10 tests are still pending.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.