Test results released Thursday evening have identified 25 COVID-19 cases among the crew of two factory trawlers operated by Seattle-based American Seafoods.
These cases aboard the American Triumph and the Northern Jaeger were confirmed Thursday evening as the vessels moored in Bellingham to offload frozen fish. They were announced by the Whatcom County Department of Health, and follow test results last week in Bellingham that confirmed a larger COVID-19 outbreak among 86 of 126 crew aboard a third American Seafoods vessel — the American Dynasty.
This is more bad news for the region’s seafood industry, which is struggling to keep COVID-19 off fishing vessels and also limit its spread among shore-based processing workers employed in Northwest and Alaska coastal communities.
The large number of cases aboard the American Dynasty underscores how easily the virus can spread aboard a fishing vessel, where many workers labor long hours in close quarters to one another. That vessel returned to Seattle earlier this week, and most of the crew who tested positive are housed in lodging acquired by King County for COVID-19 patients.
The smaller number of COVID-19 positive crew from the American Triumph and the Northern Jaeger will stay at an isolation facility in Bellingham, according to a statement released by the Whatcom County Health Department.
“This is a dynamic and evolving situation,” the statement said. “More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
Seattle-based American Seafoods earlier this week confirmed the Northern Jaeger and American Triumph crews would be screened for COVID-19 in Bellingham.
In a statement released Friday, the company said that four of the positive cases involved crew on the American Triumph and 21 worked on the Northern Jaeger. Each vessel has a crew of more than 110.
The company will ensure that the crew members who tested positive receive proper medical attention, meals and other essential care, according to the company’s chief executive, Mikel Durham.
American Seafoods operates a fleet of six factory trawlers that catch and process fish off Washington and Alaska. The three vessels that have had outbreaks were involved in a spring harvest of Pacific Whiting off the Pacific Northwest coast, and have been scheduled to head north to Alaska for the summer season to fish for Bering Sea pollock.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, seafood companies have worked with health consultants to come up with plans to try to keep the virus from their boats, as well as processing plants in Alaska communities, where there are serious concerns the industry will spread the pandemic onshore.
American Seafoods plan had involved at least a five day quarantine, along with testing. But the company on Friday announced that it will change that to a two week quarantine, along with testing , for crew who are preparing to go to sea. That decision was made “after we sought advice on how to improve our crew safety net,” Durham said. “We continue to work with our public health partners to make appropriate adjustments to our protocols based on the growing body of knowledge about the virus.” Crew who board a ship must have two negative nasal swab tests.
Many other seafood companies already have opted for full 14-day quarantines, along with testing.
They include Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, which operates vessels and a network of Alaska processing plants.
Joe Bundrant, chief executive officer of Trident Seafoods, said even with the two-week quarantine, he still worries.
“There is so much unknown about this virus,” Bundrant said Thursday.
Seafood company employee quarantines are likely to get more scrutiny in the weeks ahead as the COVID-19 outbreaks grow in the Northwest and Alaska.
This week in the small Alaska coastal town of Whittier, 11 seafood processing workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Those workers were the first confirmed cases in that community, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
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