Alaska health officials have allowed fishing companies' workers to wait out a two-week post-travel quarantine in close quarters on their fishing boats, even after authorities denied a similar proposal by a North Slope oil company.
At stake is the health and safety of the hundreds of crew members who work onboard vessels in the Bering Sea. The protective measures vary from company to company, and the state has not explained its criteria for approving or denying plans across different industries, or even between separate fishing companies. It's also refused to release mitigation plans to the communities affected by them.
In Unalaska, dozens of vessels plan to follow state guidelines and ask their crew to quarantine in their places of origin for two weeks before travelling to Dutch Harbor and boarding their boats. Once onboard, they'll quarantine for 14 more days.
Those "pre-quarantine" plans are modeled off widely-disseminated guidelines suggested by the state.
Yet some health experts say pre-quarantining is riskier than asking workers to quarantine themselves after they travel to an isolated Alaska community.
While 14 days of isolation can protect workers from COVID-19 before traveling, there's still a risk of catching the virus between their homes and their destinations. Many fishing industry workers come from outside Alaska and have to take more than one flight to get to Dutch Harbor.
After boarding, vessels often depart the harbor shortly after. And successfully quarantining and socially distancing at-sea—hundreds of miles from shore, on crowded vessels that can carry dozens of crew—is very difficult, experts say. Crews risk contracting COVID-19 while fishing with anyone who has recently traveled.
"Once you get on a plane—or multiple planes—and transport through airports, you have now increased your risk," said Megan Sarnecki, medical director at Iliuliuk Family and Health Services (IFHS).
If one crew member catches COVID-19 while travelling, then gets on a boat, "you're all going to get it," she added. "You’re all going to live with that."
In Alaska, only essential businesses can seek exemptions to a requirement that employees arriving from Outside observe a two-week quarantine at home. Essential employees are allowed to return to work during that two-week period, but their employers must submit plans explaining what protective measures they'll take to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other workers and surrounding communities.
For fishing companies, "having the incoming crew self-quarantine on the vessel is a perfectly acceptable plan," Tom Koloski, a top state emergency management official, wrote in an email published by the Bristol Bay Borough.
"In fact it is probably preferred," Koloski said. "Once they are all on board, they can set sail and start fishing while still self-quarantining."
State health officials rejected a similar "pre-quarantine" plan from multinational oil company BP, which proposed to have its Outside workers quarantine in their homes before flying directly to the North Slope, bypassing Anchorage. Instead, all of the company's Outside workers are required to spend two weeks in quarantine inside Alaska before flying to the remote North Slope oil fields.
Asked why the two industries are being treated differently, Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said the BP decision was "based on the critical structure of where they're at and what the rest of their peer groups were doing."
On the North Slope, Crum said, workers from multiple companies mingle in the same area.
"You’re going to have a lot of different groups coming back and forth," said Crum. "Alaskan residents and out-of-state workers together going back and forth. And we looked at that and realized that the best way to protect Alaskans was to quarantine everybody first in Alaska."
He added: "In each one of these situations, we're looking at what makes the most sense for the area, what’s our chance for cross contamination, and how are these groups going to actually work out together."
On Thursday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued his 17th mandate—one that covers independent boats. The mandate was directed at smaller fishing vessels operating throughout Bristol Bay, the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. Local leaders had called for more clarity from Industry as to what their safety plans are. Some demanded that the governor shut down the fishery altogether, citing health concerns for vulnerable rural clinics and communities.
At the heart of the debate is how to balance public health measures with economic need. And in fishing—particularly seasonal fishing—there is a limited window of time where crew can actually work. If fishermen miss the season, they can miss an entire year's worth of income. In the end, crews weigh the risk of infection with the very real need to make money.
Many vessels operating out of Dutch Harbor have already submitted their protective plans through trade organizations, companies, or other fleet representatives.
Two trade organizations—United Catcher Boats, which represents trawlers that target cod and pollock, and Groundfish Forum, a trade association of five companies that fish for yellowfin sole, Atka mackerel, Pacific Ocean perch and cod, among others—confirmed that at least some of their members are relying on pre-quarantines as part of their strategy. Another industry group that fishes for cod, the Freezer Longline Coalition, is making decisions on a "company-by-company basis," said Executive Director Chad See.
Groundfish Forum, United Catcher Boats, and the Freezer Longline Coalition all signed a recent open letter to the City of Unalaska that said "the safety of the residents of Unalaska is of the utmost concern."
Other signees included the At-sea Processors Association and Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Neither group responded to requests for comment on their pre-quarantine plans.
Unalaska Community Likely Not At Significant Risk, But Crew Are
A state public health nurse who works in several Aleutian Chain communities said that pre-quarantines like the ones proposed by the fishing companies carry "lots of unknown risks," given the potential for exposure while traveling.
"If there's any sort of public transit where you’re sitting and sharing air with people for longer than ten minutes, that's where there would be the risk of exposure," said Donna Bean, who provides public health guidance to the clinic and city. "So airplanes, buses, vans—any location where they're in proximity with other people is a risk."
She added: "For best public health practice, there is no replacement for a 14-day quarantine set to begin once an employee arrives at their destination."
Unalaska is Alaska's largest rural community without a Critical Access Hospital. The clinic has no intensive care unit and must medevac any critically ill patients nearly a thousand miles east to Anchorage. The clinic is also relatively small: If one health-care worker contracts COVID-19, there's little backup.
Sarnecki, the medical director and a doctor at the clinic, said that fishing companies' plans sound like "the best [industry] could come up with to mitigate risk."
From a community perspective, she added, that risk is fairly small.
If someone—or several people—from a crew falls ill, they will likely be transferred off the boat and to the nearest medical facility. IFHS staff have worked to develop testing and treatment protocols that limit possible exposure to the disease for both themselves and the community. They decided that if a crewmember is well enough, they can remain on board while waiting for testing. In one recent scenario, a crewmember suspected of having COVID-19 met IFHS staff at the dock. There, he was swabbed for testing by staff wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). He waited for the results on board his vessel, and not in town. A few days later, he and the clinic heard back from the lab. His test was negative.
Sarnecki said the clinic has received access to only one fishing company's plan submitted to the state, and clinic employees don't know which companies have submitted the required plans.
The Dunleavy administration has refused to release companies' protective plans to local governments, according to Alaska Public Media. KUCB's request for them is pending.
Unalaska's pollock industry is winding down "A" season before beginning to prepare for "B" season, which starts in June. There are several currently active fisheries in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands region, including yellowfin sole, flatfish, Atka mackerel, snow crab, golden king crab, sablefish, and jig-caught pacific cod.