The plant manager at Wrangell’s fish processor says the company is holding off on bringing in its usual seasonal workforce out of concern for spreading coronavirus to the island community.
As concern over containing the coronavirus pandemic was discussed by elected leaders Sunday, the head of the town’s operating fish processor addressed the Wrangell Assembly. There are concerns of the seasonal workforce returning from out of state.
“I just want everybody to know that we will comply with any requests that the city needs,” said plant manager Rocky Caldero, addressing the meeting.
Those assurances have come as a relief to Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka. He says seafood processors are recognized as critical infrastructure that can be exempted from Alaska’s mandated 14-day quarantine for people arriving from out of state. Still…
“We cannot overwhelm our limited resources to provide medical resources to the residents of the island,” he said.
Sealevel is a subsidiary of Pacific Seafood. The corporate office in Oregon wouldn’t confirm its local employee’s assurances. In a statement, spokeswoman Lacy Ogan said only that the company’s plants across seven states operate in accordance with federal guidance.
There’s concern in Wrangell that an outbreak of COVID-19 would quickly overwhelm health workers. The community of 2,500 people has just three ventilators in its hospital.
Prysunka says even if a seafood plant does quarantine staff, it should think twice before importing a large group of people to a small isolated town like Wrangell.
“Because once they’re here, they’re our responsibility,” he said. “So you can bring up 30 workers, put them all in quarantine. If four of them show up with coronavirus, well that’s one more person than we have ventilators on the island.”
The city says it will reassess its whole approach to the coronavirus pandemic in mid-April. As of Thursday afternoon, there have been no confirmed cases. Unlike neighboring Ketchikan and Juneau.
“If we can pull off a season, I’d sure like to see it, don’t get me wrong,” Prysunka said.
The city has shut down fish processors before. A local water shortage caused the city to declare an emergency in 2016 which shut down production at the fish plant. The city isn’t singling out the processor. It’s also asked the U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Crossings — an expedition and behavioral health program for young people to curtail seasonal hiring.
And Wrangell’s other main fish processor, owned by Trident Seafoods, recently told the Wrangell Sentinel it will remain closed for this year’s fishing season. But that’s due to low salmon forecasts, not the coronavirus pandemic.