COVID-19 outbreak grows at remote Aleutian fish plant

Some buildings next to the water against a hill
Trident’s facility in Akutan. 15 workers who are considered ‘high risk’ have been evacuated to Unalaska, and 2 others have been moved to an Anchorage hospital. (Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Updated 01/26/2021 at 6:30 p.m.

A COVID-19 outbreak at one of Alaska’s largest fish processing plants has infected nearly 20% of workers with testing only partially finished, officials said Tuesday. 

At Trident Seafoods’ huge plant on the remote Aleutian island of Akutan, 135 of 700 workers have tested positive for the virus so far, state officials reported Tuesday.

The company has only tested about half of its workforce, and Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, said at a news conference that the outbreak is still on an “upward trajectory.”

“I don’t think this outbreak is going to end in the next several days,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s going to go on for a while.”

Trident officials announced a three-week closure last week after a handful of workers tested positive for COVID-19, just as the billion-dollar pollock fishing season kicked off. 

The company’s outbreak has posed a particularly thorny problem because of Akutan’s remoteness. 

The island has an airport, but no functional runway, so planes can’t fly there. Instead, workers have to fly into Unalaska, where the airport is often plagued by weather delays.

Then, employees either take a boat directly to Akutan, 35 miles away, or they take a boat or flight to the neighboring island of Akun, followed by a helicopter to Trident’s plant.   

Days after the Trident workers tested positive, bad weather continued to delay shipments of the supplies Trident needs to conduct mass testing of its large Akutan workforce. 

But the company said Tuesday that testing supplies and more medical workers are now on site.

At least 15 people considered at “high-risk” from COVID-19 are being moved by ship to Unalaska, state health officials said. 

Two workers with COVID-19 were evacuated to an Anchorage hospital, they added. 

“As we continue to test, we are also assessing and monitoring the health of all individuals across the facility,” Stefanie Moreland, a Trident executive, said in a prepared statement. “We arranged Coast Guard-assisted evacuations yesterday for two employees whose condition was quickly worsening. We now have more private-sector resources lined up in case further emergency evacuations are needed and weather permits.”

Trident is one of three plants in the Aleutian Islands to shut down this year amid COVID-19 outbreaks. 

UniSea, in Unalaska, shut down in early January after a number of processing workers tested positive for the virus following a New Year’s Eve gathering in company housing. Alyeska Seafoods, also in Unalaska, shut down Friday after testing identified a “cluster of positive cases,” according to municipal officials.