A Seattle seafood company issued an apology to the community of Unalaska after crew members from one of its vessels, at port in the island community, breached isolation protocols to visit a crowded local bar last weekend.
The resulting widespread exposure forced the city to move from the “medium” to “high” coronavirus risk level after nearly a month and a half at the lower threshold. Dozens of locals who visited the Norwegian Rat Saloon have been asked to quarantine and test for the virus, if they haven’t been vaccinated.
“We are extremely sorry about the events that occurred,” said Dave Wood, U.S. Seafoods’ chief operating officer. “We regret that these individuals made terrible decisions, put a lot of people at risk and harmed a lot of people. We are as outraged as you are.”
U.S. Seafoods officials said they’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened that night, shortly after the F/V Seafreeze America arrived in port.
The 240-foot vessel was fishing for yellowfin sole in the Bering Sea last week when a few of the 51 crew members on board started feeling COVID-19 symptoms. The company tested them on board, and rerouted the boat to Dutch Harbor to confirm the results and be closer to medical care, Wood said.
He said the boat was last in Dutch Harbor in late March when the company brought a group of new crew members on board. By the time they’d boarded, they had tested negative for COVID-19 two separate times, and gone through nearly 20 days of quarantine — though most of the quarantine was what’s known as “self-monitored,” without guards or security personnel ensuring compliance.
“That’s our protocol for 2021,” Wood said. “And it has worked pretty good until this trip.”
Wood said he thinks it’s likely whoever brought the virus onboard picked it up during travel, given the multiple checks in the process. But he can’t be certain.
The boat reached Unalaska on Saturday, about 20 hours after crew members initially developed symptoms. Eight people onboard had tested positive at that point. According to Wood, all eight went immediately to Unalaska’s isolation bunkhouse while the rest of the crew stayed put.
That’s where Wood said the story gets murky.
“We have not been able to complete a thorough investigation,” he said. “We are getting some conflicting stories by those individuals, so that’s something that we’re continuing to try to work through.”
While the details aren’t clear, company and city officials say it appears as many as four of the COVID-positive crew at Unalaska’s isolation facility decided to head to the bar on Saturday, just before midnight.
“Getting an accurate picture on what happened that night on land in Dutch Harbor — it’s been challenging for us,” Wood said. “The other crew on the Seafreeze America needed to be confined to the vessel, so we didn’t have eyes and ears [at the facility].”
Unalaska officials said city staff periodically send a patrol past the isolation facility when it’s being used. But after last weekend’s breach, companies using it will be required to provide their own security.
According to local health officials, initial estimates from video footage indicate as many as 60 people could have been exposed at the Norwegian Rat that night. But some may not have been in close contact long enough to be considered at risk for catching COVID-19, and others may have been vaccinated.
“Some individuals that were exposed — we’re confident they are vaccinated, but many were not, so certainly there is risk,” Melanee Tiura, the chief executive at Unalaska’s clinic, said at a City Council meeting Tuesday. “Where they were sitting and how much distance was around them is helpful, but of course sitting in the same space for a couple of hours — certainly that bubble begins to grow around a person.”
As of Tuesday night, contact tracing from the bar was only about 40% complete, Tiura said. It was still too soon after the exposure to begin testing.
The entire Seafreeze America crew was ultimately tested or retested at the local clinic. 26 came back positive. Two are presumed positive but refused retesting, according to Wood.
He said the U.S. Seafoods employees who breached isolation effectively fired themselves.
Violation of the island’s public health mandates is also a misdemeanor: The fishermen could face up to a $500 fine and even prison time.
“We have a strict zero-tolerance policy with regard to alcohol and being disruptive,” he said. “These individuals, whether there’s one, two or three of them, or more, chose to disregard that, and disregard the clear direction from the vessel, the vessel captain, the company and the Dutch Harbor authorities. So on one level, they terminated their employment when they made those poor choices.”
While the majority of COVID-positive crew have been flown on medical charters to Anchorage, the company is still working to figure out what’s next for the boat and the crew still on board.
Company officials are having almost daily calls with state and local officials to make a plan and keep them updated on the health status of remaining crew, according to Matt Upton, an attorney who manages vessel operations for U.S. Seafoods.
Upton said they’re also working to continue vaccinating the Seafreeze America crew. To date, just two of the 51 crew are fully vaccinated and 14 have their first dose. While vaccination numbers are low on the large boat, he said 90% of crew on one of the company’s other vessels has been vaccinated.
Upton largely attributes the difference to the greater availability of vaccines when that crew left to fish, but Wood also acknowledged some workers are hesitant about getting the shots.
“It’s no surprise that the seafood processing workforce has some initial reservation to the vaccine,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to educate, answer questions, point them to good resources and get them to understand the importance of it. And I think we’ve made a lot of good progress.”
This is the second major coronavirus outbreak on a U.S. Seafoods vessel since the start of the pandemic. Nearly the entire crew of the trawler Legacy tested positive for the virus in early December while wrapping up their season fishing for Pacific Ocean perch in the Bering Sea.