The number of positive COVID-19 cases among crew members on the American Triumph grew by 79 Sunday, bringing the tally of confirmed cases on the American Seafoods trawler to 85.
The Seattle-based vessel — which has an onboard processing plant and holds a crew of 119 people — arrived in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor on Thursday, with seven crew members reporting symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
All seven were tested for the virus upon arrival, and six of those tests came back positive, officials announced Friday. That prompted staff from Iliuliuk Family and Health Services to test the remaining 112 crew.
All crew members were restricted to either the vessel or their isolation locations while in Unalaska, city officials said.
Chartered planes are in the process of flying the 34 crew members who tested negative for the virus from Unalaska to Anchorage to begin a period of quarantine and symptom monitoring, said City Manager Erin Reinders.
Those who tested positive are receiving further medical screening from clinic staff.
The American Triumph, and its crew members who tested positive, are scheduled to depart Unalaska late Sunday or early Monday with American Seafoods medical support personnel on board. They're scheduled to sail to Seward and arrive by Wednesday, when crew members will be moved directly to an isolation location in Anchorage for further care and monitoring.
American Seafoods has brought in an "additional paramedic" to assist and monitor crew members during the sailing, and the vessel plans to hug the coast on its sailing to make it easier to evacuate sick people should that become necessary, said Melanee Tiura, chief executive of Unalaska's clinic.
"All of that has been well thought out," Tiura said. "There are exit strategies if that additional level of care is needed."
Clinic personnel are still assessing whether any of the crew members who tested positive are too sick to travel and if any of the sick individuals may need to stay in Unalaska.
Unalaska is the largest community in the state without a critical access hospital, and the nearest emergency room is almost a thousand miles away, in Anchorage. Unalaska's clinic is the only healthcare facility on the island, with one part-time and four full-time providers living in the community, and four part-time providers that provide additional coverage as needed.
They serve anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand year-round residents and seasonal workers. Tiura said testing 119 people from the factory trawler took a toll on the healthcare resources of the island, but she added that Unalaska still has plenty of COVID-19 testing supplies at this time.
"We're a small facility," Tiura said. "Our team was all hands on deck for the last couple of days. It's certainly something we can recover from, and our team is in very good spirits. They've done an excellent job, as always."
Reinders said the island and clinic are prepared and moving forward, and Unalaska's Unified Command — a COVID-19 response team made up of healthcare officials, seafood industry and school district representatives, social service agencies, and the Qawalangin Tribe — has planned for similar situations.
"We've got the relationships in place and plans in place," Reinders said. "We've talked about this kind of thing before, and I think we have learned from our past experiences. I think we're able to respond quite well to the situation. Obviously, we hope it doesn't repeat itself, but we've got a good team."
The American Triumph had been at sea since June 27, fishing both offshore from Washington and Oregon and then moving to Alaska to fish for pollock.
The seafood company, which is one of the biggest players in the billion-dollar Bering Sea pollock fishery, runs six vessels that fish for pollock, hake and sole in both the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. It generated concern among Alaskans last month, after it announced more than 100 crew members on three of its vessels had tested positive for the virus in Washington, ahead of the summer fishing season in Alaska.
At the time, experts questioned the company's decision to mandate a more liberal five-day quarantine period, rather than the 14 days required for fishing companies operating in Alaska. No other companies that operate large Bering Sea factory processing vessels have confirmed cases of the virus among their crews—let alone an outbreak.
American Seafoods subsequently said it had extended its quarantine period to two weeks. Now, before boarding, all new crew members had to undergo a series of testing and screening procedures, including two nasal swab PCR tests and the longer quarantine period, according to the company.
The fact that American Seafoods had put those stricter rules into place makes the source of the new outbreak somewhat of a mystery.
"I can't speak at this point [about] anything specific that was done wrong," said Tiura. "We know this is a very infectious agent, it can be difficult to detect, someone can be completely asymptomatic, can test negative, and then still develop the virus days later. So, in a large vessel like this, the ability for it to spread is significant."
Reinders said Unalaska is not concerned about community spread at this time, and will not be increasing its assessment of the local risk level, which is currently set at "medium." She said all cases are related to the American Seafoods vessel and that everyone was kept isolated.
"I think this does remind us all that this is an active pandemic that we are all currently experiencing and so, each of those individual choices that we make day in and day out, they really do make a difference. And so, please remain diligent in your efforts," Reinders said.