Unalaska Partners With Fish Processors For Unique Quarantine Facility

Apr 14, 2020

The new isolation and quarantine facility sits behind Safeway. Originally a UniSea bunkhouse, the facility can hold up to 125 people.
Credit Caroline Lester / KUCB

In Unalaska, fish processors have joined forces with the city to create an isolation and quarantine facility, designed partly to serve the transient fishermen who pass through the town. According to the organizers, this model—a partnership between a city and a private company—might be unique in the country. 

 

The facility is in a two-story building at the edge of town, right behind the local Safeway. It's long, and grey, and looks, from the outside, like a standard company bunkhouse.  

Mike Hanson, captain of Unalaska's Fire Department, showed off a room. 

"I mean it's nothing fancy that's for sure. You’ve got two single bunks, with a closet for each person. A couple chairs to sit on. And a window," said Hanson. "Oh and cable."


The facility will host three kinds of patients: those who are COVID-19-positive, those who are displaying symptoms and waiting on test results, and those who have had close contact with a COVID-19-positive-person. Each patient population will have their own entrances, and be housed separately from each other. 

Hanson said that he's not familiar with any other facility quite like this. Seattle, for example, bought a motel back in March to use as a quarantine site. Anchorage has turned two arenas into an emergency homeless shelter.  But Unalaska's project appears to be one of the only free quarantine and isolation facilities funded through a public-private partnership in the United States. 

"I worked on the boats for 28 years. So I knew there was going to be a need for that side of it as well," said Ron Kjorsvik, director of Alaska operations at UniSea—the local fish processing plant that owns the building and offered it to the city. "If they come in, they have nowhere to go."

Kjorsvik is pointing out a serious problem for the island. Much of the local economy relies on seasonal workers who will need a place to isolate if they fall ill. Dutch Harbor is the largest seafood port, by volume, in the United States. Anywhere between five and ten thousand fishermen, processors, and seafood industry workers transit through the community. If they get sick, they're likely thousands of miles from home. Fishermen are particularly vulnerable—unlike plant workers, there are no places for them to stay on-island. 

Additionally, Unalaska is nearly a thousand miles away from Anchorage and the hospitals that any sick residents are typically evacuated to. The local clinic, Iliuliuk Family and Health Services, is not equipped to handle more than a few critical care patients at a time. 

UniSea joined forces with the city government to create an isolation and quarantine site for Unalaskans and seafood industry workers who need a place to go. Kjorsvik said that UniSea has its own quarantine bunks for the one-thousand employees who work at the plant. 

"Ideally we won't be using this site unless it's kind of the last resort kind of thing," said Kjorsvik. "Hopefully nobody has to use this site. It's for everybody."

In the end, the fish processor fronted most of the initial costs for the facility, though it may be eligible for reimbursement. Either way, Kjorsvik said that the costs amounted to small improvements, like a heating system and a few hot water  tanks. He said that the facility should be "ready to go."

Mike Hanson, the fire chief, said that the facility will be available to everyone who needs it, whether or not they work in the fishing industry. 

"This building is going to be for people who cannot quarantine in their own residence," said Hanson. "[People who] don't have a residence, like people coming off boats. Or someone that has a high risk individual in their home who they dont feel comfortable quarantining with."

Each floor has communal bathrooms, separated by gender, and a laundry room. There are 35 rooms total, and 125 bunks. Hanson said that they'll try to keep residents in single rooms, and double-up as a last resort. 

UniSea has led the project, but all major seafood processors are involved. UniSea, Alyeska, Westward, and Icicle Seafoods have each volunteered safety officers to check in on the residents at the site two times a day. UniSea, Alyeska, and Westward have also pledged to provide food for residents. City staff will deliver it. Anyone who stays at the site must first be referred by the clinic. 

 

Next door, the city is also preparing another, smaller building. Hanson said it will likely be used for patients who may need access to a steady oxygen supply, but don't necessarily need to be staying in the clinic or evacuated off-island to a hospital.

According to Hanson, the only major task left is to hire someone to clean the buildings. But he said that finding someone has proved to be a tall order. 

The facility is ready to start hosting patients. But so far, no one on the island has tested positive or needed to quarantine at the facility, yet.