Alaska officials will allow seafood industry workers from other states equal access to COVID-19 vaccines as residents following major outbreaks at Trident Seafoods, UniSea and other remote plants processing pollock and crab this winter.
On Wednesday, the Office of Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy sent to a letter to Alaska's "critical infrastructure industries" -- including seafood -- stating "protecting seasonal workers, in turn, protects the communities in which they work."
Trident Seafoods in particular was hard-hit in January with a massive outbreak in the remote city of Akutan, Alaska -- which serves as a major processor during the pollock B fishing season, bringing in hundreds of out-of-state workers.
In January, around 40 percent of employees at Trident Seafoods' Akutan facility tested positive for COVID-19, followed by cases on its catcher-processor vessel Island Enterprise and, earlier this week, a second factory trawler, the Kodiak Enterprise, at the company's Tacoma port.
Some 7,300 Alaska residents account for the 26,000 seafood processing workforce in the state, according to data from the McDowell Group (now McKinley).
Chris Barrows, president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association (PSPA), noted while the industry is thankful for the new inclusionary measure, the biggest constraint still is the lack of federal vaccine supply.
Dunleavy's office noted in the letter that industries with high numbers of seasonal, out-of-state workers place an "additional burden" on the Alaska healthcare industry, but said the state did not have enough vaccine doses at this point to allocate a specific portion to seafood and other industries.
There are currently 119,100 state-allocated vaccines, not including tribal or military allocations, which are separate. Getting vaccines to Alaska is a challenge compared to other states, since 80 percent of its communities are only accessible by air or water and most vaccines must be distributed by plane, according to Alaska Airlines.
"A limited amount of vaccine is currently available with more expected to be delivered in the coming months," Alaska health officials said.
The state recently entered its next phase of vaccinations -- Phase 1b, Tier 2 -- which allows people age 50 and above with high-risk medical conditions or who have "essential" jobs, along with educators, some pandemic-response workers and anyone who lives or works in certain congregate settings to be eligible.
Members of the out-of-state essential workforce are also required to provide a letter stating they are in the state for 60 days or longer as well as "characterize their risk of exposure," according to the Governor's office.
Hard start to A season
While Trident Seafoods has been the company heaviest hit by the pandemic this year, COVID outbreaks temporarily shut down Maruha Nichiro-owned Alyeska Seafoods' pollock processing plant in Unalaska, and Nippon Suisan Kaisha's (Nissui) UniSea processing plant.
Unisea reopened Monday, Feb. 1 after being shutdown for nearly one month. In total, sixty-six of UniSea's more than 900 workers tested positive for the virus.