Seattle researchers aim to stop the spread of COVID-19 infections in Alaskan fishing industry

Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal is home to many commercial vessels that head to Alaska each year to catch salmon, halibut, cod, crab and other seafood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

As Washington-based fishing companies are heading to Alaska in the coming days and weeks, thousands of their employees will be participating in a project aimed at early detection and control of COVID-19 infections.

Ali Mokdad, IHME professor and Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health at the UW. (UW Photo)

With close quarters and crew members sharing cabins, fishing ships are ripe for spreading the disease. This summer, American Seafoods, a leading processor in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, had COVID outbreaks on three of its massive trawlers and some of its workers received care at a tiny clinic in Unalaska.

“Alaska is at high risk of an infected workforce impacting small, mostly Native communities with little resources to deal with an outbreak,” said Joshua Berger, maritime director for the state’s Department of Commerce.

And there’s a lot at stake for keeping the industry open: the Alaskan fishery is worth $10 billion to Washington’s economy, Berger said.

Approximately 10,000 employees of fishing and processing companies are expected to participate in the screening program, which is being led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a research center at the University of Washington that has been tracking and modeling COVID infections.

“It’s very important for us because we want to save lives and save livelihoods,” said project lead Ali Mokdad, an IHME professor and Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health at the UW.

Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The fishing crews will be quarantined for two weeks and then need to test negative for COVID before leaving port in Washington. After setting sail, the crew members each day will answer a short series of questions on a cell phone or laptop about their health and the anonymous results will be transmitted to the IHME, depending on a vessel’s access to cell phone or internet service.

The IHME researchers will look for symptoms that suggest an infection and warn a ship of troubling signs. If health experts suspect someone’s sick, they’ll provide guidance for isolation and the potentially infected people will be tested for COVID using a nasal swab. The samples will be analyzed at the UW.

The program hopes to limit the spread of disease by avoiding sending a vessel with infections into a town where the disease is absent or limited, and if a town is infected and a vessel is not, the ship can possibly go elsewhere. There will be different protocols for handling a catch if a crew member is infected.

The protocol of surveys, testing and detecting viral outbreaks used could be easily scaled up or applied to a variety industries and sectors.

“The system is designed to expand,” Mokdad said. “It’s flexible. You can add more questions or companies or locations.”

The effort is one of the Department of Commerce’s Safe Start projects. Safe Start is working to ramp up the economy without increasing COVID infections and received a $15 million of grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The IHME project is in partnership with Commerce’s Washington Maritime Blue initiative and Discovery Health MD.