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COVID gamble

As Alaska salmon processors head into the fishing season hopeful of dodging the perils of the pandemic, a new report on the meat and poultry industries paints a portrait of a problem-filled road ahead.

The examination coming out of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at England’s Oxford Univerisity seeks to explain “the high rate of Sars-CoV-2 transmission in meat and poultry facilities,” and identifies three key factors in play:

  1. The working environment in these facilities is favorable to SARS-CoV-2 persistence (metallic surfaces, low temperatures and relative humidity).
  2. The working environment may help SARS-CoV-2 transmission (crowded working places, shared transportation, production of aerosols, droplets, fomites).
  3. A vulnerable, low-paid workforce may be under pressure to keep working despite having symptoms of COVID-19.

All of those factors apply equally to fish processing plants in Alaska. None of those plants are, as of yet, in full swing, but already processing-related COVID-19 cases have shown up in Cordova, Bristol Bay and on the Kenai Peninsula. 

Processors have been quick to respond. COVID-19 sufferers appear to have been quickly identified and quarantined.

As Ocean Beauty Seafoods CEO  Mark Palmer explained the situation in an interview with Cordova’s KLAM radio, it was disappointing that a worker preparing the plant there was diagnosed with the disease, but “our testing procedures caught this person.”

The Seattle-based company has – like other Alaska processors – committed to testing employees before shipping them north and again upon their arrival in the 49th state.

“When COVID first started to come on the radar screen, one of the things that I felt confident in is that the disciplines we have in place as a company to control listeria” would prepare employees for maintaining hygienic environments in the companies five Alaska processing plants.

Common and uncommon pathogens

Listeria is a common bacterial problem in smoked-fish operations. The bacteria can enter plants in various ways – including on boxes – and survive there. Employees are warned it can stick to hands, gloves, clothing and footwear, and thus be spread throughout a processing plant if workers are not careful.

Handwashing is stressed for employees who touch any possibly contaminated surface, including their faces.

“From a mindset standpoint,” Palmer said, Ocean Beauty employees were conditioned to deal with keeping pathogens out of the plant, and  “we were as active as we could possibly be in looking for testing opportunities.”

Unlike listeria, COVID-19 is a wholly new pathogen, and microbiologists at this point aren’t exactly sure of how it spreads. Respiratory droplets are thought to be the main source of infection, but questions have been raised about aerosols and contact spread from so-called “fomites,” objects which become contaminated when droplets fall on them. 

Ocean Beauty’s goal, Palmer said, is to test everyone and never send someone to Alaska who is infected, and then back that up with a second test on-site in the 49th state.

“I can’t emphasize enough that we thought this was the highest standard we could come up with,” he said. “We dedicated a lot of funds.”

So far, the program appears to have worked for keeping the SARS-CoV-2 virus from jumping from processing plants, which are this year being run as employee concentration camps, to the communities in which those plants are located.

Whether company efforts will be able to avoid the spread within the facilities themselves over the course of the summer remains to be seen. The record elsewhere has not been good.

The Pacific Seafoods plant in Warrenton, Ore., was forced to close earlier this month after a COVID-19 outbreak, and The Astorian newspaper noted it was the “second seafood processor on the North Coast with an outbreak.”

Employees of Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, the nation’s largest seafood processor, have been stricken with COVID-19 in Washington state, Cordova and Bristol Bay, but the Alaska cases – to date – have been isolated affairs.

The CEBM report suggests that no matter what precautions processors take, they will need a fair bit of luck to get through the June-July salmon season without a major COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our analysis revealed the following broad themes,” the team of scientists from English and Canadian research institutions observed:

  • A high-risk industry for COVID-19 spread. Meat packing plants, abattoirs and slaughterhouses were depicted as major sources of local outbreaks, and sometimes as a key source of a national upsurge in cases when the disease was otherwise under control.  The largest reported cluster in our sample was 1500 cases linked to a single meat-packing plant in Alberta, Canada. A short article from the US Food and Environment Reporting Network linked to a regularly-updated interactive map of the United States showing – when accessed on 15th May 2020 – 213 separate outbreaks (9 farms and the remainder meat-packing plants) and 15,689 cases of COVID-19. In one US factory, 58 percent of workers tested positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).
  • Business pressures. The meat sector appears to have been under intense competitive pressure for years, with small plants tending to close and be replaced by very large plants owned by vast international companies employing thousands of workers to achieve economies of scale. It was described as lacking the resilience to withstand an external shock.

The latter bullet-points is a near-perfect description of an Alaska seafood industry now controlled by a handful of companies busy consolidating in an effort to survive in a cutthroat marketplace.

Global business

On Friday, Ocean Beauty and Petersburg’s Icicle Seafoods announced a merger that adds to the empire of Canada-based Cooke Seafoods, which built its business farming fish in Chile, Scotland, Scotland, Uruguay and Spain before buying Icicle in 2016.

In a media statement, Cooke described the deal as a “change…designed to grow the value of the Alaska seafood resource in a way that benefits the company’s customers, employees, and fisherman partners.”

The deal will increase the number of Cooke Alaska plants to 10. They are being rebranded as  OBS Smoked & Distribution, LLC. Cooke said the new entity will be owned 50-50 by Icicle and Ocean Beauty, the latter controlled by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and a handful of private investors.

As with most other major Alaska seafood processors, Cooke runs a largely seasonal business which requires it to import large numbers of works from the Lower 48 and other countries to staff its processing plants in Alaska during the short, summer salmon season.

Alaska seafood processing jobs hit a low of a few thousand every December, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, slowly began a climb to toward 5,000 in the new year and then explode in June and July when peak employment hits 25,000. 

The quick decline that follows has those jobs back below 5,000 by the end of September. The well-established import of labor increases COVID-19 risks.

Trident’s Bristol Bay plant in North Naknek “employs more than 700 seasonal workers and supports an independently owned harvesting fleet of more than 300 small driftnet vessels and 150 setnet operations,” the company says.

Like the processing plant employees, most of the driftnet skippers and crew plus a good share of the setnet fishermen descend on the Bay from elsewhere. Processing plant workers putting in long days in closed spaces are, however, thought to be the most in danger from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The CEBM reported described them as a “vulnerable workforce,” noting that industry descriptions detail “how meat workers are typically immigrants from several countries (e.g. Filipinos, Africans and Mexicans in the USA and Canada; Romanians and Bosnians in Germany; Filipinos, Africans, Romanians and Bulgarians in Ireland), sometimes with undocumented or uncertain citizenship status, rarely fluent in the local language and with limited health literacy and little or no understanding of their employment rights. They would have feared losing their jobs, and so may have accepted low pay and poor conditions without protest. For example:

“‘Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state, has long had a complicated relationship with meatpacking plants. While the industry is an engine of the state’s economy and the country’s food supply, it also employs many immigrants, who have faced periodic raids to enforce immigration laws. Even with union representation, immigrants at the plant say they are afraid to raise concerns about working conditions.’ – New York Times, 10th May 2020″

Alaska is much like Iowa sans the periodic raids. Many of the processing plant workers here are foreign workers on what are called H-2B visas. Lawmakers from seafood states, among them Republicans Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, have for months been lobbying the Trump administration to continue and expand the H-2B program despite the global pandemic.

Few concerns have been expressed in Alaska about the risk of COVID-19 to immigrant laborers, but much concern has been raised about the risk of COVID-19 blowing up in a rural Alaska village.

Whether villages can be protected if an outbreak begins in a fish processing plant and whether processing can continue in such a case, only time will tell. Though some villages have pushed for a salmon-season shutdown – a move the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy has resisted – based on the idea that it is the safest thing to do in the short term, the decision on what policy is best is not clearcut.

Salmon processing is a significant part of many local economies in Alaska, and without it all that remains to sustain villages is public money, be it in the form of a limited number state or federal jobs and public aid of various sorts.

 

 

 

 

 

18 replies »

  1. Ah, the hoax is nearing it’s end…Whelp, guess there are always riots..
    “ROME (Reuters) – The new coronavirus is losing its potency and has become much less lethal, a senior Italian doctor said on Sunday.

    In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy,” said Alberto Zangrillo, the head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan in the northern region of Lombardy, which has borne the brunt of Italy’s coronavirus contagion.

    The swabs that were performed over the last 10 days showed a viral load in quantitative terms that was absolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out a month or two months ago,” he told RAI television.

    Zangrillo said some experts were too alarmist about the prospect of a second wave of infections and politicians needed to take into account the new reality.

    “We’ve got to get back to being a normal country,” he said. “Someone has to take responsibility for terrorizing the country.”

    A second doctor from northern Italy told the national ANSA news agency that he was also seeing the coronavirus weaken.

    “The strength the virus had two months ago is not the same strength it has today,” said Matteo Bassetti, head of the infectious diseases clinic at the San Martino hospital in the city of Genoa.

    “It is clear that today the COVID-19 disease is different.”

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-italy-virus/new-coronavirus-losing-potency-top-italian-doctor-says-idUSKBN2370OQ

  2. Total bs Craig. I get your anti-science attitude. Mask do not work, social distancing is a joke, and reported deaths are inflated because people would die of other things. All your positions are just bull. First the doctors in the hospitals know what the primary cause of death is. They would have to violate their professional standards to skew the data. Relative to masks you argument is we do not know. So you argued with uncertainty in fisheries one should use the precautionary principle. However you go 180 degrees opposite with the mask discussion. Trouble keeping your positions straight? The issue is the number of virus per unit volume. Masks reduce the distance the droplets can travel. End of story. Without a mask a cough will send the virus farther at higher density.

    Relative to me being selfish. What a crock. I am not going to kill anyone. Studies and empirical data show 1 person can infect 100 or more people. The issue is they go home not knowing the deaths they caused. Your Cosco example makes my point. People are not being responsible. Your attitude is typical of the right wing. Economic growth is more important than public health. Just be honest about it. It is selfish position that you are willing to kill people for money. And forget the people killing themselves. That is more bs to confuse the issue. Over 100,000 people have died. Suicidal deaths are no where close to that. More misdirection.

    So in summary the world health experts are all wrong. They are skewing data to keep people from working and causing deaths equal to the virus from suicide. That the world health experts wearing masks have not read your studies as they still wear masks. Your followers may like your comments but they are refuted by the world health experts. I assume they read your references and rejected them.

    Do what you want but be assured it is a selfish position.

      • ” People are not being responsible. Your attitude is typical of the right wing. ”
        So Ken, would you label those rioting, domestic terrorists who are obviously being “responsible” citizens left-wingers?
        Just looking for some clarity.

    • Ken: You seriously misinterpreted. The proper reaction would be to accuse me of being “anti-religion.” Religion is based on beliefs because it is impossible to find evidence.

      Science is based on evidence. You clearly did not read the story. You suggest I hold the position that “social distancing is a joke.” I do not hold that position. It is one of the behaviral modifications the science clearly supports.

      As the story noted, the Chinese discovered that if you avoid dinner and TV watching at a distance of three feet or less from a COVID-19 infected individual, you lower your chances of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 by a factor of 18.

      One might call that yuge.

      There is no doubt about social distancing. Other measures exist in the unknown.

      Despite masks, PPE and careful hygiene, a reported 62,000 health care workers have now been infected with COVID-19. It wasn’t because they were trying to catch it. It was because their jobs put them in close contact with significant viral loads of SARS-CoV-2.

      We can rule out droplets in most, if not all, of these cases since almost everyone was masked. That leaves aerosols and fomites. Given this, should we conclude aerosols and fomites aren’t a problem in the real world?

      Personally, I will admit masks concerns me on two levels: 1.) The potential for increased fomite spread; given the Alaska numbers, my odds of running into a SARS-CoV-2 carrier would appear low. They would seem higher for encountering the SARS-CoV-2 someone’s hands placed somewhere. 2.) The behavior of the masked. When I have to go to a store for whatever reason, they have had a bad habit of getting in my face. I have totally stopped asking store employees for anything. Most of them don’t appear to understand three feet let alone six feet.

      They seem unable to have the simplest conversation – as in “Where do I find X?” – without closing to within a couple feet. If they are aerosolizing SARS-CoV-2 and pushing it through that mask, I really don’t want their little could of viruses floating around my head.

  3. I think we make too much of covid-19. It is a virus. It can kill people. Not as many as heart problems. (We don’t see the number of cases on the front page of the paper each day.). We don’t know the origin of covid, or really how to treat it. We know what causes drunk driving accidents — and how to cure it. We don’t care… we drink anyway.
    Be careful and your odds of coming down with coronavirus is pretty slim. If you are scared you might get sick and are vulnerable— stay home. Don’t rail at those who choose not to fear, or are willing to accept the risk.
    Fishermen may fish if they choose, folks may work in the industry if they choose to. I am of the opinion to leave them be. Processors are doing an excellent job of dealing with the issues. Going overboard really. All fisherman, at least in Bristol Bay, are going to face a very difficult season meeting Processor mandates, oh well, I am not hearing any fishermen complaining……we will just deal with it.

    • This type of post pisses me off. First heart deaths impact the individual- I know of no heart issues being transmitted to other and killing them. Society did care about drunk driving. Mothers against drunk driving changed laws all across the country so if you kill someone you pay with jail time. There are lots of examples were society reacted. Dealing with second hand smoke for example in the work place. So your premise is just wrong.

      Relative to just stay home so you can not put people at risk is a selfish statement. Irresponsible behavior on your part can kill me. I have terminal cancer and a compromised immune system. So you are saying for what little time I have left just stay in your house because you want to be totally free to do whatever you want. I am staying home for the most part but I need to enjoy life in the little time I have. I can drive to see the sunset or some rare bird and wildlife. I have to fill my gas tank and while doing so the antimask people drive up and jump out and expose me to a certain death. I am not suppose to visit my daughters to say good bye- just stay home. People who say this are just self centered individuals who have no compassion. All I ask is that people wear a mask when out, keep away from me, and do not create a high concentration of people were an outbreak can take place. That is not too much to ask for those of us with little time.

      Relative to this is just a virus. No not all virus are equal. This one is killing 100,000 people in a few months.

      In summary a mask is not much to ask to be a responsible individual and keeping rates of infection low so hospitals given give us a small chance to survive is not much to ask.

      • Come on Ken, you don’t actually believe those Covid death numbers do you? You do know 7500 people die each day in this country? So, since March we are talking over a million. Also, how many people didnt receive cancer diagnosis or receive treatments because of this virus nonsense? How many suicides and how much starvation around the world will be caused by this nonsense? I certainly hope you do not get your gas in LA, Philly, Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, etc.. seems they aren’t taking your concerns about wearing masks, Social Distancing, etc..seriously these days. Could die of smoke inhalation.
        If anything Ken, you seem to be the selfish one. Expecting others to live in a bubble so you can safely get gas. Ridiculous. Wear gloves and a mask and you should be ok, ESPECIALLY outdoors. Your anxiety will kill you long before this virus will.
        I got a new mask the other day and could see light through it. All that mask does is provide false sense of security. It certainly does not stop virus particles. What? Are people going to sneeze snot or cough into their masks? I also keep my nose exposed. Why? Because a healthy person should not be FORCED to breath carbon dioxide all day. Remember when the CDC said “Do not wear a mask, it doesnt help”? Now their the rave?

      • Ken: The evidence absolutely does not support your claim that people without masks are exposing you to a “certain death.”

        It is frankly hard to believe anyone who was once a scientist would make such a claim. To start with, the evidence is clear that SARS-CoV-2, for reasons unknown, doesn’t infect everyone. Two test-tube cases, first the Diamond Princess cruise ship (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6911e2.htm) and now an Antarctic cruise ship (https://thorax.bmj.com/content/thoraxjnl/early/2020/05/27/thoraxjnl-2020-215091.full.pdf) showed that many exposed to SARS-CoV-2 do not get it.

        It is not even “certain” you would get the disease if you were put on a cruise ship known to be loaded with the infected.

        On top of this, the Korean study cited in the story you apparently did not read noted that people who avoided close contact with those infected had an18 times lower risk of contracting the disease. This is an orders of magnitude lower risk.

        The study defined “close contact” as three feet or less while eating dinner or watching TV.

        Time of exposure is a factor in the spread of all infectious disease. Are you spending large amounts of time within 3 feet of people at the gas station? You can’t put the nozzle in your car/truck, click it to pump and get back in the car while it is pumping?

        I’m sorry about your cancer. I hope you live a long time still, not a short time. I have a friend who was given last rights because of his cancer 20 years ago who is still going strong. Disease outcomes are never clearcut. Some people who are supposed to die live on and on, and some who are supposed to survive die.

        I hope you are among those who live. That said, I think it is a bit much to ask everyone else to change their behavior because of your disease. It would be like my insisting that everyone stop driving so I don’t have to fear for my life when commuting by bicycle, a dangerous activity in this state.

        And at this point, I calculate my odds of being hit while riding the bike as significantly higher than of any of us contracting COVID-19. I take considerable precautions to avoid death from either. If someone who is SARS-CoV-2 infected (a very small number of people in Alaska) bumps into me, the data would indicate the odds of that leading to my becoming infected are very low.

        In Iceland, which has done a very good job of tracking and quarantining those who had close contact with someone with SARS-CoV-2, the infection rate after such contacts is under 10 percent, and the recovery rate is 99 percent. (https://www.icelandreview.com/ask-ir/whats-the-status-of-covid-19-in-iceland)

        Those are pretty good odds. If I get smacked by a car while on my bike, the likelihood is near 100 percent that I’m going to suffer some kind of injury. The only question centers on how bad the outcome. The U.S. bike death rate is at this time 12.4/100,000 inhabitants. Given how few Americans regularly cycle, that number is obviously deflated.

        Only about 1 in 24 Americans bike, so we should probably correct his number to about 293/100,000 for people who cycle regularly. Alaska’s COVID-19 death rate is at this time 1/100,000. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1109011/coronavirus-covid19-death-rates-us-by-state/)

        One can hope it goes no higher (knock on wood), but I suspect it will. Hopefully, it will not rise to the disturbing rate of 96/100,000 (Mass.) to 152/100,000 (NY) of the state in this country’s Northeast. But even there the death rate does not appear close to that of cyclists.

        Maybe this should lead me to believe that everyone who drives a motor vehicle is trying to inflict a “certain death” on me, but it doesn’t because that isn’t what the science says.

  4. The season is so short that any fallout from Covid will be too late to affect the money. no brainer.

  5. Maybe they quarantined, except when they didn’t. Quarantine is the honor system, unless a third party ensures it takes place.

  6. This is interesting but Craig please research how the Kenai and Kasilof River PU fisheries are going to be handled. Thirty five thousand permits are issued for these fisheries. The fisherman and families are confined to a small section of beach (where the fishing is good) and families co-mingle on the beach. If allowed to go forth as in the past this is a much greater risk to Alaskans than a few workers from the Lower 48 that are being tested. Other high density fisheries like Russian River and boardwalks along the Kenai also pose a threat. So far the State guidelines appear to be very superficial. Please explore in detail why the State and City of Kenai feels these fisheries should go forward as in the past.

    • You raise a good question as to the boardwalks at the Russian River. They and the Kenai/Russian River ferry would seem the most likely places to present difficulty in maintaining social distancing. I’ll see if anyone has any idea as to the risk.

      On the boardwalks, it would appear hard to assess given the open-air – a demonstrated protectant against infectious disease – and the limited time of exposure between passing individuals. As the Chinese masking study demonstrated, the closer together people get and the more time they spend that way the greater the odds of infection.

      There are no documented cases of an uninfected person simply walking past an infected person and the former catching the disease, but hat would be damn hard to document. It would certainly appear possible. Likelihood? WTF knows.

      The Kenai River dipnet fishery, or at least the shore-based fishery, would seem less an issue. Families co-mingling there is and of itself a non-issue. They already do that at home; it’s not going to add to the risk to do it on the beach.

      That leaves only the question of social distancing between non-related parties. Is it possible to maintain a 6-foot separation in these fisheries?

      I frankly can’t remember many times when I got within 6-feet while dipnetting. I fish the conga line, and my net is about 15-feet long. It generally requires more than 6-feet of maneuvering room to operate. Even on the occasion of standing in line waiting to walk, I’ve got 7 1/2 feet of net hanging over my shoulder front and back protecting my zone.

      As for those people who stand and wait to catch fish, my general observation is that they are at least 6 feet apart if for no other reason than that they want enough space for fish to get around someone else’s net and into their net.

      Given all of this, if people were given directions to maintain 6-feet separation, I can’t see that it would be a major problem. Fishing from boats, however, raises the same questions as in the commercial fishery. People are much closer together there. I guess that could be handled in whatever way the commercial fishery is handling this, or people could be asked to limit their dipnetting from boats to family units.

      And, of course, the fishery you failed to mention – the shoulder-to-shoulder “combat” fishery at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers, could create major social-distancing problems. But I think there are big questions as to whether that fishery will even develop this year given what is expected to be a huge slump in tourist numbers.

      I will check on plans for the operation of the ferry, an obvious close-contact situation. There again, however, the question arises as to non-resident angler numbers. Will fishing pressure fall enough that the Russian River campground parking lots will suffice to handle everyone, thus eliminating the need for the ferry?

      Even at full capacity, those parking lots don’t create a social distancing problem any bigger than that at various fat-bike trailheads this spring, and there has been no sign of any infections originating in those parking lots.

      • Very good and informative debate between a scientist who looks at things through his educational lenses and a journalist who is recognized as doing extensive research about which he publishes. Very little in the way of serious personal attacks made against each other.
        It’s a good model that commenters in other forums (ADN take notice) should consider following.

      • AK 1st,

        Agreed, we’re living thru a drama not played in 100yrs in this country.
        So basically we are writing rules of the road as we go, but with jinormously improved near real time info and biologic understanding.
        I suspect both sides will be right at times,and the conspiracy/finger pointing is such a waste of time.
        Never the less, caution on some level is warranted.Life for some period of time is going to be different.You dont have to die from the virus for it to affect you in calamitous ways.
        Keep your distance, and your mom or mom unit was right…wash your G*d D*mn hands.

  7. Two of the out of state seafood workers who tested positive for covid while in Alaska tested positive after the 14 day quarantine. How exactly did that happen?

  8. With increased testing the bad news is that Covid19 is much more prevalent in the population. The good news is that Covid19 is much more prevalent in the population which is indicating that the fatality rate will continue to skew down from the current estimated rate of just .26%. The vast majority of cases are asymptomatic & require no hospitalizations.

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