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City Says Recent Spike In Industry-Related COVID-19 Cases Could Affect Larger Unalaska Community

Laura Kraegel/KUCB

The city warned Unalaskans Thursday of possible transmission of the coronavirus between seafood industry workers and the larger Unalaska community. 

"The community is most definitely at a high local risk factor for COVID-19, in fact, more serious than at any time since the start of the pandemic," the city said in a statement. "The vaccine provides hope, but vaccine supply has limited our ability to vaccinate everyone who wants to receive it." 

The unscheduled news release from the city came just a day after they reported 109 new cases of COVID-19 — the island's largest daily case count since the pandemic began, and nearly a fifth of all local positive cases reported to date.

The recent cases are considered industry-related, which means they are people employed at local seafood processing plants or on vessels in port. The category also includes incoming industry workers and cases where transmission of the virus likely occurred within the workplace of those industries, according to the city. 

But they added that many of the recent cases aren't workers testing positive during their mandated two-week travel quarantine after arriving on the island. Instead, they're primarily industry workers who have tested positive during surveillance testing at local processing plants.

The majority of Wednesday's cases are linked to a COVID-19 outbreak at Alyeska Seafoods, according to the city. Officials at Alyeska and their parent company, Westward Seafoods, did not respond to a request for comment.

Three out of four of Unalaska's fish processing plants, including Alyeska, don't operate as closed campuses, and many employees have families who live or work in the community. 

"We must assume that some of the people with positive tests have been out and about in the community, with multiple contacts," the city said. 

Only Icicle Seafoods' Northern Victor facility — a 380-foot processing vessel permanently docked at Unalaska's spit — operates as a closed campus, where employees live in facility housing without their families and are restricted to company property to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Having a closed campus can definitely provide some benefits when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID," said Julianne Curry, public affairs manager for Icicle. "But really, we're still learning more about this virus every single day. And that's certainly true for both open campuses and closed campuses."

Curry added that everyone in the seafood industry and processing sector in Unalaska has gone "above and beyond" to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

"And sometimes, the virus still gets into the facility anyway, no matter how many precautions and protocols that you put in place," she said. 

To date, the city has reported 627 cases of the coronavirus in Unalaska. 191 of those are currently active and all but two are considered industry-related. The city's risk level remains high.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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