Unalaska’s biggest fish processor sees new COVID-19 cases

A blue warehouse building with a small entry building oustdie where employees in hazmat equiipment wait
The Unisea facility in Unalaska in 2020 (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

UniSea has seen five positive cases of the coronavirus among its employees and employee family members since late August.

That’s largely due to an influx of about 100 new processing workers that the island’s biggest seafood processor brought in to fill a gap in the market, according to UniSea President and CEO Tom Enlow. 

“We started the ‘B’ season with no intention to bring additional processing employees up,” he said. “But then we were contacted by a couple processors who were not going to be able to open up their cod platforms, and that would basically leave their respective fleets without a market to deliver to. So we made the strategic decision to go ahead and bring in additional processing workforce for the fall cod season.”

Early on in the pandemic, Unalaska’s onshore processing plants chose to keep seasonal employees on-island between fishing seasons — one of many strategies the plants are employing to keep the virus out. 

UniSea leadership knew there would be some risk involved in bringing new employees to the island to process cod, according to Enlow. But, he said, that’s why state and local health mandates are in place, and community and workforce protection plans are being followed.

“I think that every seafood processing company that operates in Alaska coastal communities has experienced positive COVID-19 cases,” Enlow said. “UniSea was one of the last companies standing. We knew that by bringing workers in, there was going to be some level of risk involved, but we were very careful in our screening process to make sure that we could reduce and mitigate that risk.”

All five individuals who tested positive for the virus — four of whom are part of the new group who came in for fall cod season which started Sept. 1 — were identified through the company’s quarantine testing protocol, which requires a COVID-19 test at the beginning, middle, and end of the 14-day quarantine period.

In compliance with the company’s workforce protection plan, they were quarantined away from others and did not have contact with the outside world, according to Enlow. 

“We do not allow people in quarantine to leave the quarantine quarters,” he said. “They are completely isolated. They’re not in a cohort group. They’re not allowed to go outside. We make special exceptions in a monitored fashion for individuals who are smokers, and understand that it’s a powerful addiction and that they need to have some kind of relief. But that’s all done in a supervised way. So in other words, you’re in quarantine for 14 days with no contact with the outside world, no contact with the people that are monitoring you or providing you with meals, etc.”

According to Enlow, the contact tracing process through the state’s health department has been challenging. He said the state doesn’t have the staffing in place to provide much support. But he said, the local Emergency Operations Center (EOC), clinic staff, and their own internal COVID-19 response team are doing a lot of the contact tracing themselves.

“We have done a terrific job in isolating these five cases,” said Enlow. “Of the five cases, only one exhibited mild symptoms. The other four have been asymptomatic. But they have been in isolation, no contact with others.”

Enlow said as long as the company continues to follow protocols to protect their staff and the community, he’s not overly concerned at this time about having a larger outbreak at the facility, which is Unalaska’s largest seasonal employer. 

“The big concern lies more in what’s going to happen come ‘A’ season, when literally hundreds of new workers are going to be coming into the community,” he said. 

UniSea intends to encourage employees already in Unalaska to stay on-island between “B” and “A” season, said Enlow, by providing food and housing, and possibly a paid incentive.

But for incoming “A” season employees, he said the company plans to quarantine and test them in Seattle or Anchorage prior to traveling to Unalaska. Those who have quarantined for 14 days and tested negative for COVID-19 will then fly to the island on a secured flight, where a final test will be done upon arrival.

There are currently about 700 processing workers at UniSea’s facility, plus support workers, many of whom are full-time residents of Unalaska, according to Enlow. He said the processing workforce will go up to about 1,000 come “A” season.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Unalaska’s onshore processing plants have chosen to keep seasonal employees on-island in between fishing seasons.

In a rural Alaskan town of 4500 year-round residents, an influx of approximately one thousand international workers—looking for ways to keep busy—is quite a change.

UniSea is keeping plant security tight. In order to enter, everyone must pass through a checkpoint and show a company ID or be placed on a list of expected visitors.