As America's meat producers contend with thousands of COVID-19 cases among processing workers, seafood companies have drafted rigorous plans to ward off similar spread of the disease as their summer season looms in Alaska.
But with that season still gearing up, the industry has already been shaken by its first major outbreak, aboard a huge vessel with an onboard fish processing factory. Last week, Seattle-based American Seafoods confirmed that 92 crew from its American Dynasty ship had tested positive for COVID-19 — nearly three-fourths of 124 people onboard.
Fishing executives had been working long hours to prevent just that type of disaster, and the news hit them hard.
"It was like, 'Wow, I can't believe this.' We had done so much — each company had worked so hard to try to avoid this happening," said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, a trade group whose members fish for pollock and cod off Alaska and another whitefish called hake off Washington and Oregon. "None of us have ever worked so hard in our lives than we have in the last two months, without a doubt."
The American Dynasty, which is 30 feet shorter than a football field, came into port in Washington after fishing for hake — a spring season that functions as a kind of tune-up before vessels steam to Alaska for the summer pollock fishery. Once at shore, a crew member reported feeling sick to the vessel's medic, then tested positive for COVID-19, American Seafoods said in a prepared statement.
A day later, the company reported another 85 cases, plus six more Thursday. Then, late Thursday evening, county health officials elsewhere in Washington reported that 25 crew members on two other American Seafoods vessels had also tested positive for COVID-19.
All three vessels are still scheduled to fish for Alaska pollock later this summer, though "schedules aren't set at this time," Suzanne Lagoni, an American Seafoods spokeswoman, wrote in an email message. Dozens of other Seattle-based boats are also expected to arrive in the Aleutian Islands this month to participate in the summer pollock fishery.
Seafood industry officials and health-care providers note that Alaska has imposed stricter quarantines for fisherman than the measures used by American Seafoods before the its crews fell ill. But they also acknowledged that the outbreak shows just how badly things can go wrong in a fishing vessel's cramped quarters — which poses a bigger risk for the remote Alaska communities near factory trawlers' fishing grounds, given the lack of health-care infrastructure there.
The clinic on the Aleutian Island of Unalaska, home to the state's largest fishing port, has just three ventilators.
"That poses one of our worst-case scenarios — that high volume at one time," said Melanee Tiura, chief executive of the nonprofit that runs the clinic. "That could very quickly exhaust all resources in rural Alaska — one boat coming in with, potentially, 124 infected individuals."
During the summer pollock season, factory trawlers and onshore plants process the harvest from the Bering Sea into surimi, the fake crab sometimes found in sushi; they also supply filets for products like McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. The fishery is big business, with an annual harvest that can be valued at more than $1 billion after processing.
American Seafoods is the biggest player, with 17 percent of last year's total catch, according to a report filed with federal regulators in April. It owns six vessels that catch and process fish onboard, five of which carry more than 100 crew, and the company's primary investor is a New York-based private equity firm called Bregal Partners.
After American Seafoods first announced its positive tests, industry observers and medical experts quickly identified the company's quarantine procedure as a possible weakness that could have allowed COVID-19 to slip onto its trawlers.
Other seafood companies have required employees to quarantine for 14 days before they're tested and cleared them for work, since, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incubation period for the disease can run that long.
But though American Seafoods tested workers before they were allowed to board vessels for the hake fishery, its minimum quarantine in advance was just five days.
Just as it can take 14 days for infected people to show COVID-19 symptoms, it can also take that long for the virus to be detectable in a test, said Dr. Geoffrey Gottlieb, an infectious disease physician and virology researcher at the University of Washington Medical Center. He described a five-day quarantine as "cutting corners."
"From a public health, medical, virology, testing rationale, it doesn't make sense," Gottlieb said. "You might get away with it some of the time. But if enough boats or if enough industries are doing this kind of thing, it's certainly likely that at least at some point, that strategy is not going to work."
Asked why American Seafoods chose the five-day quarantine period instead of two weeks, Lagoni, the spokeswoman, wrote that the company "closely monitored" information from the CDC and worked with state and local health departments "to establish initial screening and testing protocols." Last week, she added, American Seafoods extended its quarantine to 14 days.
The 14-day quarantine period is actually a requirement for fishing companies operating in Alaska, and Lagoni said the company will be following all of the state's mandates for fishing.
The Alaska officials leading the state's response to COVID-19 are having discussions with the CDC and Washington Department of Health about what happened on the American Dynasty, said Incident Commander Bryan Fisher.
"We're going to obviously learn a lot based on the investigation," he said. "And we're just going to use that to strengthen our processes and protocols up here."
In Washington, as fishing vessels prepared for the spring hake season there, the industry received very little support and guidance from state and county public health agencies, said Paine, who heads the United Catcher Boats trade group.
Companies and trade groups developed protocols with the help of a maritime medical service, Discovery Health MD, he said. But it was "all voluntary," and each company was on its own, Paine added.
"We didn't have a group of expert epidemiologists that know viruses telling us exactly what we needed to do. There was zero support," he said. "We didn't know what was going to work."
Gottlieb, the University of Washington virology researcher, said that if companies can put appropriate quarantine procedures in place before boarding, fishing crews stand a good chance of remaining uninfected with COVID-19, largely because of vessels' isolation at sea.
But if an infected person is allowed onboard, he added, the risk is "exceedingly high," with the resulting spread mirroring what's been observed on cruise ships, meat processing plants and American Seafoods' vessels.
"The virus is going to do what the virus does," Gottlieb said. "If folks aren't doing what needs to be done from a public health point of view, and what we know needs to be done from a medical and testing point of view, it's not surprising that this kind of thing is going to happen — and this is a prime example."