Thursday the New Bedford Board of Health ordered the company shut down after three employees tested positive for the disease.
The news comes as Alaska fish processors are gearing up for the salmon processing season in the 49th state amid fears an influx of fishermen and processing-plant workers could spark an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in a state so far little touched by the disease.
Three days before Blue Harvest was told to cease operations, High Liner Seafoods only 97 miles to the north in Portsmouth, N.H., announced it was temporarily suspending operations because of the disease spreading among its employees.
High Liner reported “that the total number of COVID-19 confirmed cases at their Portsmouth production facility is less than 10,” according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
A Canadian company, High Liner is reputed to be the largest prepared seafood processing operation in North America with fish processing operations in Nova Scotia, Canada; New Hampshire and Virginia, and a satellite office in California.
Blue Harvest is a newer, smaller company. Since its 2015 start, it has touted itself as a Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI) “Level 3” rated company. The company was proud of the millions it spent installing state-of-the art processing lines in its New Bedford plant.
The modern-day facility appears to have offered no protection from COVID-19.
“A cease and desist order issued to the company Thursday night states that it has to cease operations until it provides the Board of Health with sworn documentation that it has performed enhanced cleaning and disinfection of its facility – excluding the main office and fresh scallop and fish pack out areas – during its closure, removed all employees with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has implemented certain other measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” SouthCoast Today reported today.
Alaska gearing up
Some Alaska fish processing plants run year-round and are already busy processing halibut and, with a few exceptions, other non-salmon species, but the big processing push in the state doesn’t come until June.
Sixty percent of the seafood jobs in Alaska are connected to the summer salmon fisheries, according to the state Department of Labor, and jobs in the state’s second-largest industry peak in July.
Average monthly employment in May 2018, the latest year for which data is available, was near 5,400 jobs, according to Labor records. That number more than tripled in June and went over 23,000 in July.
By September, it was back down to 9,600, and by October there were fewer people employed than in May.
Not counting fishermen and their crews, Labor reports, “the seafood processing industry has had the highest number and percentage of nonresident workers (employed) every year since data collection began.”
The 10-year average shows workers from elsewhere make up just shy of 75 percent of the processing workforce. The state doesn’t have a firm number for commercial fishermen and their crews, who are exempt from reporting employment and wages to the state.
But Laber estimates they compromised “44 percent of the harvesting
workforce” in 2018 and “took in 67.1 percent of gross wages.”
The huge influx of workers converging on Alaska from across the nation and around the world – any of whom could be infected with COVID-19 – has worried many communities, especially the smaller ones which have to date escaped the global pandemic.
Processors have drafted detailed plans on how they plan to keep the virus out of those communities. Sitka-based Silver Bay Seafoods which has operations in that Southeast Alaska city; in the Prince William Sound community of Valdez, in Kodiak, at Naknek on the shores of Bristol Bay, and at False Pass at the eastern ends of the Aleutian Islands, hired a Seattle-based consultancy to help it run a disease prevention and treatment program.
Discovery Health’s 58-page plan for the company calls for quarantining Silver Bay employees near company plants in Alaska, keeping them isolated on Silver Bay property, and evacuating anyone who gets sick.
The plan also outlines in-plant social distancing practices designed to prevent the spread of disease and procedures for eliminating contacts between processing-plant workers and fishermen.
“No captain or crew member shall leave their vessel for any reason
except those required by law,” the plan says. “No captain or crew member shall be allowed to visit the local community for any reason other than to obtain medical services beyond those available at the plant or for reasons approved by local community authorities.”
The plan has drawn some criticism.
Dr. Eliott Bruhl, the chief medical officer for the Southeast Regional Health Consortium wrote a letter to the state calling the plan “naive,” “contradictory to medical reason,” and a potential “catastrophe.”
Bringing 450 workers from Mexico and the Lower 48 to Alaska will require they pass through areas already infected with COVID-19, Bruhl said, and he questioned a Silver Bay plan to quarantine so many people in a bunkhouse for 14 days.
Other salmon processors have drawn up plans similar to that of Silver Bay because there are really no other good options. Rural areas of the state simply lack the manpower to staff processing plants even if the locals wanted the jobs, which many don’t.
The dream of everyone in the state is that the epidemic spread of COVID-19 is waning and the risks of anyone getting infected by the disease will steadily fade as the fishing season approaches.
Anyone traveling into the state from Outside will still be required to quarantine for 14 days, according to the governor’s Friday order, but “intrastate travel between communities on the road system is permitted.”
Alaskans are still to maintain 6-feet of separation and cover their faces when meeting in multi-family groups. Gatherings are limited to 20 people or less.
Whether opening up the state will cause the disease to begin spreading more is an unknown. To date, Alaska has been lucky. A University of Washington (UW) model had predicted the epidemic would peak Friday in the state with 15 dead.
The model designed by UW’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation now projects the epidemic will have runs its course by early May – though no scientists expect the virus to fully go away – and that the state death toll shouldn’t reach the earlier projected number until August.
At the rate of a two to three deaths per month on average for May, June and July, COVID-19 deaths would be occurring at a lower rate than deaths from the common flu, which on average kills five people per month in Alaska.
And the deaths would be far below accidents which kill, on average, more than 36 people per month, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
The numbers have not, however, tamped down fears everywhere. Some rural villages remain very much afraid.
Clarks Point, a village in Western Alaska, Thursday decreed that “anyone currently not residing in Clarks Point is prohibited to enter the village of Clarks Point. Anyone wanting or needing to enter our village will need Clarks Point Village Council board members’ approval before entering the community. The only persons able to travel per (state) mandate #12 are health professionals and other emergency responders dispatched by the state or federal governments,” officials of the Bristol Bay health cooperative, law enforcement personnel “and pilots delivering freight and mail. This restriction is to anyone trying to travel by air, water or land.”
The community is only about 15 miles south of the summer-busy Bristol Bay port of Dillingham. A number of non-resident and non-Bristol Bay fishermen hold setnet permits to fish the area.
“Only Bristol Bay residents are allowed to fish their sites in Clarks Point, AK,” the community policy said. “No one outside of the Bristol Bay region is allowed into the village for fishing or any other activity.”
Community residents have also been told that if they are returning home from anywhere, they need to quarantine for 14 days.
The reason, the notice said is “the pandemic and possible spread of COVID-19….This is to ensure the safety of our elders, children, anyone with a weaken(ed) immune system or anyone with a medical condition, our community in general.”
Other communities had previously asked Dunleavy to keep non-residents out, something the state has so far refused to do. Whether they will follow the actions of Clarks Point and take matters into their own hands is unknown.
Fears are unlikely to diminish amid the continuing closures of seafood, meat and poultry production plants across the country due to COVID-19.
‘Tyson Foods Inc. closed its beef plant in Pasco, Wash.,” Meat + Poultry magazine reported Friday. “The company, which previously shuttered pork plants in Indiana and Iowa this week, did not provide a timeline for reopening the facility.”
The magazine reports more than two dozen meat and poultry plants across the U.S. and Canada have been forced to close since March 31.