Wave of coronavirus infections in Cordova shuts down seafood processor

The fishing town of Cordova. (Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

A wave of coronavirus infections in the small Prince William Sound community of Cordova has temporarily shut down a seafood processing plant and led to a mask mandate for city workers.

The virus took hold in Cordova, and spread fast, infecting residents as well as almost three dozen workers at Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods, said city manager Helen Howarth.

“COVID got brought into our community by a resident,” she said. “And that resident wasn’t as careful in their interactions with other community members. And pretty soon we had an outbreak on our hands.”

It’s the worst outbreak Cordova has experienced yet. The city believes it did not begin at Alaska Wild Seafoods, but staff there contracted COVID in the community and then infected other workers.

“It spread like wildfire,” said Howarth. “It was not something that we could contain quickly, even identify quickly. So all of a sudden, we had 70-plus cases. And, the numbers were going up and fast.”

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The COVID spike in Cordova comes as much of Alaska experiences a steep rise in coronavirus cases, including in Southeast Alaska, where Sitka is also in the middle of its worst outbreak of the pandemic yet. Health officials say the latest wave of infections is mostly driven by the highly-contagious delta variant infecting unvaccinated people.

RELATED: Alaska leads nation with steepest climb in coronavirus hospitalizations

In Cordova, Howarth said, the outbreak became apparent after several employees at Alaska Wild Seafoods had coronavirus symptoms last week. Then, they tested positive for COVID-19.

The company locked down all of its facilities, and tested all of its staff, revealing a cluster of cases, she said. 

It has temporarily shut down as employees are isolated and in quarantine. It also skipped the salmon fishing opener this week.

RELATED: Uptick in COVID-19 cases prompts new restrictions in Juneau

City officials believe the current outbreak was almost exclusively among people choosing not to get vaccinated, or not to get fully vaccinated. 

Howarth said while many seafood processors in town require all workers to be vaccinated, Alaska Wild Seafoods just strongly encourages it. 

“There were members of their plant, staff members, who were unvaccinated, and that’s the problem,” she said. “We have several seafood processes here that are requiring 100% vaccination, and they are not having problems, because they’re very, very, very proactive in making sure that COVID doesn’t get into their workforce.”

Alaska Wild Seafoods did not respond to requests for comment Friday, but the CEO told the Anchorage Daily News that 35 of the plant’s 45 employees are fully vaccinated. And just one worker who tested positive sought medical care, at the CEO’s urging, because he’s older.

Also, all local Alaska Wild Seafoods’ staff were tested for COVID-19 at the start of the season, and non-locals had to quarantine upon arrival. 

In response to the outbreak, the city implemented a mask mandate for all of its workers this week, and other seafood processors have returned to a closed campus for non-local staff.

Howarth said she’s hoping the cluster of infections will continue to shrink, as more people come out of isolation. The city reported 57 active cases on Friday, down from 70 earlier this week. She’s also encouraging more people to get vaccinated, and take the coronavirus — especially the delta variant — seriously. 

“The variant is so much more contagious than what we’ve been dealing with in the past,” she said.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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